After running it for a year and a half, the Washington Post is winding down its “What was fake on the Internet this week” column for what has to be one of the saddest of possible reasons.
When the Post started the column, writer Caitlin Dewey explains, it was intended to debunk various urban legends and pranks that were proliferating—silly stuff “like new flavors of Oreos and babies with absurd names.” But over the last 18 months, the timbre of hoaxes on the Internet has changed considerably—and the response of readers to these stories has changed, too.
As with so many iterations of the tragedy of the commons, it comes down to money. People found that they could rake in cash by making up fake news, slapping ads on it, and turning it loose to go viral. People share it because they’re angry or titillated, more people visit, more people share, and the ad revenue rolls in. (I wrote about one notable instance of it in April, 2014, the month before that column started.)
And what’s the biggest thing that gets people angry? Political stories—particularly political stories about prominent figures in or causes espoused by the other political party. Many of them don’t even come from those fake news sites—they come from “partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.”
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
So, it’s useless to try to debunk many of the most virulent hoaxes currently flooding social media right now, because the people spreading the hoaxes don’t want to hear it, and they’ll only argue with people who try to clear up the hoaxes. As the X-Files poster goes, they want to believe.
For example, a few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a photo, ostensibly of Obama cabinet member Valerie Jarrett’s 1977 yearbook photo, in which she claimed to be “Iranian by birth and of my Islamic faith” and trying to “change America to be a more Islamic country.” When I pointed out that Snopes indicated the photo was fake—among other things, Jarrett was a married name that she only acquired six years later—comments in response scoffed at Snopes’s trustworthiness, saying “Snopes has been repeatedly exposed as far left agit-prop.”
How can you even argue with someone like that? Someone who would rather believe in an obviously, demonstrably fake photo just because the site that specializes in pointing out fake claims, with evidence, is asserted to be “far left agit-prop”? (And how do you suppose it got that reputation? Might it be at least in part because it debunked anti-Liberal hoaxes the Conservatives wanted to believe?) The truth may be out there, but these willfully-credulous hoax believers are even further “out there” than the truth is.
Perhaps this is the tragedy of the greater reach and proliferation of digital and social media. In the old days, it was a lot harder to spread extreme viewpoints and propaganda, because printing presses cost so much, and most of the people who owned them had editorial standards. You did get some fake stuff, but it was largely segregated in the pages of tabloids that only total space cadets took seriously.
But as with so many niche interests on the Internet, now even the space cadets can meet up with each other on social media and reinforce each other’s beliefs. People with political leanings on either side can make up their own version of the truth, and people of similar politics will believe it and spread it.
As Dewey points out in another column, this is also an era when people can search their Facebook friends to see who supports the candidacy of Donald Trump, so as to unfriend them.
In the past week alone, thousands of Facebook users have publicly promised to unfriend each and every Trump supporter in their network, regardless of — in the words of one Trump critic — “how long I’ve known you or how close we are.”
I have little doubt the same holds true with supporters of Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or whoever the most polarizing Democratic candidate is at any given time. People choose to isolate themselves from opposing viewpoints so they can share, reinforce, and be reinforced by the beliefs of other people of similar points of view. They can do the same thing with the news sources the follow. (Heck, the entire GamerGate movement has been effectively kept alive by the attentions of just one or two extreme-far-right news sources like Breitbart.)
Hence, the Internet, which was supposed to give us all broader outlooks by exposing us to all points of view, has effectively done the opposite for many. The ease of selecting, filtering, and blocking news sources and friends has allowed people to cocoon themselves away from opposing beliefs far more effectively than they could when they could only take what television, papers, and magazines gave them. Is it any wonder so many people are willing to support extremist politicians like Donald Trump?
So, in the end, the Washington Post is closing down its column debunking Internet hoaxes because there are simply too many political hoaxes and the people who believe them don’t want them to be debunked.
For my part, I want to be optimistic about the future of the Internet. Harking back again to that poster, I want to believe that the opportunities for accessing and sharing information and culture the Internet offers can help us to become better people. But it sure is hard when I see so many people willfully using it to shut other points of view away instead.