They say that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but unfortunately the volume of false news is only growing. On December 28th a website with the misleading domain, NBCToday.co, published an article claiming that Hugh Hefner had died at the age of 88. In fact, it’s the only article on this mysterious site.
Since then, over half a million people have shared the false article, driving (most likely) well over 1 million visitors to that page. With four large ads surrounding the content, the authors of the site easily netted well over $1,000 dollars for that single article.
Yes, $1,000 dollars isn’t that much money but if you consider how long it took to write, it’s a great return on investment. Few articles come close to generating that volume of attention. This pattern of false news has become common place. So common that the author of Snopes.com has built a sizable business around dispelling false information and confirming that which is true.
Under pressure from non-traditional media sources, large news organizations have already begun to reduce their level of fact-checking prior to publishing. As new information comes in, they update the articles (something I discussed with the Poynter Institute back in 2010 when I screwed up a story). Simply put: false news works (as illustrated by the Hugh Hefner article).
The worst part of this is that Google, Facebook, and other big businesses make serious money off of false news. There’s easily a false story every day passing through my news feed. I have no doubt that I’m seeing a small fraction of this information. Just like everybody else, I have to click through.
To be fair, it’s not completely surprising that false news is such a big thing on the internet. The National Enquirer, for a long time, had a very large circulation. The difference though is that when you purchased the National Enquirer, false information was completely separated from other publications.
Now, when you read through Facebook, you see factual information and then false information in the same feed. How are you supposed to differentiate?
I know, we are all supposed to be intelligent individuals who are capable of separating false information from fake. Yet when false information is perpetuated in a way that’s intended to make it appear legitimate for the purpose of profit, so many questions arise.
Is this a problem that requires a solution? Should individual consumers be responsible for determining what’s true and what isn’t? When businesses have ads running on sites like this without their knowledge, should Google be held responsible?
I don’t have all the answers but I’m curious to hear your thoughts! Shoot me a message on Twitter.