Editorial

When hoaxes, rumors, and satire collide

When hoaxes, rumors, and satire collide

I used to make a point to smugly differentiate between a hoax, rumor, or satire when they were used interchangeably, especially by other debunking sites. Now, however, that distinction has become less defined.

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In the good old days of debunking false information, it was usually pretty clear when the falsehood was an intended hoax, a silly rumor, or just a mislabeled satire piece in circulation. Those were typically three distinct types of fiction, and could classified as such. Now, however, as we sit in the final weeks of 2014, the distinction between these three types of false stories has become significantly blurred, thanks in part to a new breed of fake news websites which cropped up in late 2013 and flourished over the past year.

Fake News, aka Satire

In the final weeks of 2013, I was starting to see the signs of what has now become the de facto “fake news” item which seems to go viral every few days. Although a few of these types of fake news stories saw modest social media sharing in mid-2013, by New Year’s 2014 the writing was already on the wall that a new breed of false story had arrived. At that time we were already discussing faux news reports about Muslim Appreciation Month, Vine star Lil Terio’s kidnapping, Walmart selling marijuana in Colorado, and a handful of other fake news reports. Unlike past satire stories from websites such as The Onion, which occasionally circulated because some readers were unaware of their origin, these so-called “satire” pieces weren’t funny at all, and simply read like a real news report – that happened to be untrue.

But these false news websites, by creating shocking headlines, manage to find a way to spark outrage and debate, which on occasion has lead to massive social media sharing. One could say they’ve taken the formula for supermarket rags such as Weekly World News, which sold millions of copies due to their crazy and fictional headlines, and tailored it for modern online culture.

Let’s call these websites what they really are: fake news websites aimed at drawing high traffic which leads to higher revenue. The Independent was much more concise in its description of such sites, referring to them as “fake news sites disguising clickbait as ‘satire’…”

I tend to differentiate between true satire and thinly-veiled fake news labeled as satire. The Onion is clearly satire, but this new breed of self-described satire websites hardly compares.

In the Beginning: 2012 and Fake News Generators

The precursor to today’s online fake news websites would probably be fake news generators which were responsible for Adam Sandler death hoaxes that occurred seemingly every week back in 2012. Anyone could visit one of these generators, fill in a few details in an online form, and create a fake – yet official-looking – “news” story that could be dropped on a social media profile. After a dozen or so celebrities “died” during snowboarding accidents that year, even casual internet readers had become keen on these fake generators.

Another variant which found success in 2012 was Mediamass. That website, which still occasionally rears its ugly head after a celebrity death, posts the same story for hundreds of celebrities and politicians, which is then found via Google searches and shared by unsuspecting readers. Perhaps its most popular story on that site is the “death hoax” article which is duplicated for all major living celebrities. Whenever one of these celebrities actually dies, however, many fans find the fake Mediamass article and incorrectly alert their friends that reports of the celeb’s death were not true.

Be sure to read our full writeup of Mediamass for more info.

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What is News?

In a baffling twist of irony, some of these fake news websites have actually managed to slither their way onto Google News, and are listed alongside legitimate news websites in Google News results. You can now find headlines by these fake news sites mingling among respected news organizations in Google News, at least until Big G (hopefully) gets wind of this glaring problem and fixes it.

Piggybacking

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a new technique by fake news websites, in which an old hoax is revived, altered, and reported as “news.” A recent example is the “Three Days of Darkness” rumor which resurfaced from 2012. One fake news website jumped on the bandwagon and updated it to claim that 6 days of darkness were “confirmed” by NASA.

Rise of the lazy debunker

A potential side effect of the avalanche of fake news is that of the unpleasant chore of constantly debunking an increasing number of such stories. Some popular “debunking” websites appear to have been relegated to watching satire sites and immediately debunking the posts in lieu of posting more substantive dissertations. While I’ve not shied away from debunking the more popular fake news stories, I’ve also tried not to allow them to dominate wafflesatnoon.com.

I know of at least two websites which have been created for the sole purpose of debunking bad satire, and this may be a good avenue for dealing with such a high-volume of niche false stories.

Washington Post

In October 2014, the Washington Post published a piece on these fake news websites, interviewing a representative of National Report, one of the more prominent of these purveyors of false news. He compared the website to sketch comedy and fan fiction. The Post concluded, “But the fake news industry — a crop of Web sites dedicated solely to passing off fact as fiction, for the resulting ad revenue — has only exploded within the past two years.” National Report’s success has prompted its founder to launch several more such fake news websites.

What’s Next?

I have no doubt that these fake news sites will eventually disappear from the landscape, just as the fake news generators died out. Just recently, Facebook was spotted testing out a “satire” badge next to related articles by known fake news websites. Google is also known to wipe websites off of the map with a simple algorithm change, and that could certainly happen without warning in this case. How these fake news sites see their demise remains to be seen, but it seems likely that eventually the joke will get old and they will be forced to find another way to create click-bait (and I’m sure they’ll find it). Just as most people now know that Weekly World News is a silly tabloid, it seems likely that many of these fake sites will be outed and avoided by Joe Internet.

Perhaps more important isn’t the demise of fake news “satire” websites, but what will replace them in the coming years, and how this will trickle down to affect those of us who debunk false information.

It’s a strange game we play: The hoaxter publishes a falsehood and we debunk it, and there is a strange dance which occurs between both sides. How this all evolves will be an interesting development indeed.

Have you been fooled by a fake news website? Tell me about your experience in the comments below.

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@accroya

James White specializes in internet hoaxes, travel, product reviews, and social media.

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