Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fake News and "Real" News

The problem with fake news is the same problem with real news - the temptation is to sell sensationalism as it captures eyeballs.

Fake news is all the rage these days.  The media has seized upon it as "evidence" that the election was rigged or that Russians are trying to mind-control us.   But the harsh reality is, a lot of fake news sites originate right here in the good old USA.   The fellow who runs is in California - doesn't get more American than that.

The model for fake news is pretty simple.   First, put up a story that people want to believe or that plays to their pre-existing prejudices.   Obviously, targeting stupid people is a good move, but even smart folks will click on this nonsense.   Second, you set up ads on your site.   Third, profit.

What was interesting about the article on NPR was that the fellow tried to set up fake news sites about Hillary and left-wing issues, but few people bit on them.   A Russian interviewed in today's New York Times reported a similar result.   When both switched to Trump, all hell broke loose.   As the nationalreport guy noted, people want their "red meat".

Anything about Trump sells - the fake news sites found this out, as did the legitimate ones.   Since the election, the New York Times has become the New Trump Times, as nearly every article is about how awful it is that Trump was elected.   The New York Times and Breitbart are not so far apart - they know what "red meat" their readers want.

In Howard Stern's movie "Private Parts" there is a line that illustrates how this works. The station manager is reading the latest A.C. Nielsen ratings and says:

"50% of listeners LOVE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 1.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"

"50% of listeners HATE Howard Stern and listen for an average of 2.5 hours. Reason given? They want to hear what he'll say next!"

Whether this survey was actually true, it illustrates the twisted genius of Stern and other "shock jock" and talk show hosts, as well as television programmers. Their goal is to get you to listen or watch, so they can sell you, like a pimp sells a whore, to advertisers.
The point is, it doesn't matter whether you hate Trump or you love Trump, they know you will click on articles that talk about him.  On Yahoo! I made the mistake of clicking on some Trump articles because I wanted to hear what outrageous thing he said today.   Yahoo! mistook my interest for support and then flooded me with right-wing diatribes about Trump.   Funny how that works.

And this is nothing new.   I decided recently to "monetize" this blog as an experiment (although I have not had any reports about ads appearing just yet).   One thing that occurred to me was that if there was any significant revenue from this that I would start writing more and more sensationalized posts (with clickbait titles), in order to make more money.   In other words, give people the red meat they crave.   It isn't hard to sell out, just ask "Sooze" Orman - on her new yacht.

But none of this is anything new.   Fake news is not some new product of clueless millennials (boo!  hiss!  Too bad you weren't lucky enough to be baby boomers!)  and online social media.  It has been with us since the dawn of time.

Cable television news made "fake" news stories long before the Internet took hold.  There's a contrail West of Los Angeles!  Let's spend 10 hours on the air speculating about it.   Or let's speculate about something happening on an airplane parked at a gate, for maybe five hours or so.  Oh, wait, it turned out to be nothing.   But we made you watch!

The format of "news shows" is not designed to inform but instead to keep you watching.   There is a huge filter in what is decided that you get to see, and what is not deemed important.   And what they decide you want to see is what is good for ratings - compelling videos and controversial stories.

"Legitimate" news shows caused riots across the country when they reported - often recklessly - that an "unarmed teen" or "unarmed black man" was killed by Police.   Now there are situations where Police have used deadly force in a capricious manner.   But most of the stories reported were cases where deadly force was justified.  The entire "Ferguson" thing, which spawned "Black Lives Matter" was based on an incident that the President of the United States (who is half-black himself) said was the justifiable use of deadly force.  A "strong-arm" robber runs from the police and then leaps into a squad car to wrest the pistol from the Policeman trapped inside.   It is a pretty clear-cut case of justifiable homicide.  But the news reports it as controversy as controversy sells.

If you want to find the "perp" who is responsible for the assassination of Police Officers across the country, look no further than your local newsroom - who puts dollars ahead of policemen's lives. 

But none of this is new.  Tabloids were one of the early forms of "fake news" and still exist today.  The Daily News originated the "clickbait" title, only instead of "clicking" they got you to put 10 cents into the paper box to see what the rest of the story was.   British tabloids were - and are - the same way.  

Distorting the news for personal profit is nothing new.  WeeGee, the infamous "crime scene" photographer, would often stage crime scenes and move bodies to make a photo more compelling and salable to the newspapers.   This is fake news.
And this goes back decades or even centuries.  Remember WeeGee and his staged crime scene photos?   Sensationalism sold newspapers, even back then.   Especially back then.

And now the media acts shocked this had gone online?  What is really pissing them off is that some schmuck living in a tract home in the suburbs of L.A. is getting more hits on his fake news site than they are getting on their "real" one.

And then there are the off-the-wall tabloids like the National Enquirer  and the Weekly World News, the latter being a victim of even more outrageous stories online.  The Enquirer, as we know, was in Trump's pocket, and even today runs racy headlines about how Hillary is going to jail.   In the past, the Enquirer ran stories that the "mainstream media" refused to touch, but once ran, were now "legitimate" subjects for reporting, as in, "As reported in the disreputable tabloid, The National Enquirer, Bill Clinton was accused of...."

And the mainstream media "went there" because they knew their competitors would, and they wanted ratings or to sell newspapers.

This is nothing new, of course.  Tabloid journalism, yellow journalism - it is all the same thing.  You can draw a straight and direct line between Steve Bannon and William Randolph Hearst.

It has gotten to the point where many young people today find that satirical news sites are more reliable sources of information than legitimate ones.   The Daily Show or The Onion at least are up-front about their fakeness.   And you can read more into a story based on how it is mocked than with "straight" reporting.

I recently subscribed to The New York Times as they offered a good promotional deal for daily delivery (for three months only - they use a negative option subscription package!).   What alarmed me about the "Grey Lady" wasn't that it had become more left-wing over the years (which it has) as well as its pathetic attempts to be trendy and relevant, but that it pandered to its readers by offering "red meat" on a daily basis.

Every day, my inbox is now crowded with articles from the NYT about Trump - and three days a week, papers in my driveway with alarmist Trump stories.   Yes, there is plenty to be alarmed about with Donald Trump.   The articles vary from "can you believe he nominated.....?" to "Maybe it won't be so bad after all!"

But the main point is, they know that their readers have a lot of angst and will click on or read articles about Trump.   It is the same "red meat" that the fake news sites sell, only instead of just made-up crap, it is "news" by dint of speculation and conjecture.

Same shit, different day.

My only regret is that I didn't think of this first.   Rather than decrying fake news, I should have been profiting from it, right?

Stay tuned - did you know Hillary was actually a space alien?  I have pix to prove it!