Post-Truth

November 22, 2016

The word of the year is "post-truth."


"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs"

Chosen by the Oxford Dictionaries, this older word erupted into use this year. Brexit. Trump. Fake news. Post-truth sadly defines 2016 quite well. 

Before the election I wrote a reflection on fake news: Stop Sharing Fake Political Crap on Facebook. Thanks to lots of people sharing it on Facebook, it quickly became my most read post ever. In the piece, I lamented how people were sharing fake news that confirmed their ideological biases but didn't represent reality. That's the world of post-truth. It feels right to many people to say Barack Obama created ISIS (false) or that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS (false) or that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump (seriously false). So we post that fake crap even though it's fake crap.

An analysis of the most shared political news on Facebook shows that by the end of the campaign, fake news outperformed real news with more shares, reactions, and comments. And the popular fake stories keep rolling even after the election: Trump won the popular vote (false), Denzel Washington attacks Obama and praises Trump (false), and a Trump protester claims he was paid to protest (false). I even saw a Christian newspaper editor fall for that last one.

Why do these fake stories keep popping up? People are trying to make money off other people's confusion. When we click on the stories - and especially when we then share them for others to click on - that drives traffic to the fake news websites. That traffic, in turn, helps the websites garner money from their ads. As I know from personal experience here on my own website (see my couple of ads off to the right), it takes a loooot of traffic to make much money from the ads. Fake stories with scandalous headlines and trumped up claims garner more shares and therefore make more money. (It would help me actually make a couple cents today if you and some of your friends share this post.)

A report shortly before the election found a lot of fake political news sites were run in Macedonia. The drive isn't ideology; it's capitalism. Other sites with an ideological tilt will run with misinformation without fact-checking like real journalists because it matches their politics and drives traffic. The New York Times tracked one such false story as it moved through the Internet before exploding. And the Washington Post profiled a couple of writers who talk about how their fake political posts help them make money.

With the controversy growing about the explosion of viral fake news, Google and Facebook both announced moves last week to prevent fake news sites from participating in advertising programs. If successful, that could take away some of the motivation behind creating such sites. But the most effective step is one we can take: stop sharing fake political crap on Facebook!

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