Fake News

So, you want to create a website that gets lots of clicks. What do you do?

Back in my day creating a blog may have been enough. If your content was fresh and you kept on top of the spam comments, you could boost yourself pretty high in the resutls. These days, however, without a high profile on all the relevant social media platforms, you won't make it. No matter the quality of your content, it seems the only way to get ahead is to pander to the lowest-common denominator or hire a company who may use "grey hat" techniques to boost your results for a time. Unfortunatly this has been embraced across the Web as the only viable path. Fake stories and sensational clickbait content are everywhere now.

Back in the early 2000s, before the search engines got smarter, there were many sites created with fake or misleading meta information. These sites were easier to sift through because you knew if you were searching for something about javascript, but you got a page about monkeys, that was fake. Back then you couldn't vote down the results, but most people would bookmark the pages they liked once they had found something that was really helpful.

Nowadays the quality of the content isn't so easily distinguished. I wonder if the majority of the problem is the shrinking size of the content. Twitter serves up a snack-sized chunk of biased text that may or may not be from a real person. If it follows your own biases, it reinforces your world view without ever needing to learn more. We then re-tweet and amplify it a thousand-fold without knowing its veracity.

Myths and Belief

This is similar to the way myths gained strength back before the telephone, telegraph, pony express and carrier pidgeons. Stories told while huddled around campfires kept the darkness at bay. They may not have been entirely factual, but they had weight. They affirmed biases and supplied reason and order in place of chaos. In the telling, they became more than stories, they became the bedrock of civilization. They shaped behavior, communication and interaction between people. Unfortunately, they also galvanized one group against another by cementing the idea of the "other". Those who weren't around our campfire were to be feared and hated.

Today, the ubiquity of social media brings the campfire right into our pockets. Stories that mirror our biases are availble 24/7. More and more we see these myths shaping behavior and since many people think feelings are more important than truth or objective reality, we see our behavior shaped by those who are feeding us these myths.

Conspiracy and Diffusing

Does that mean there is a shadow government forcing us into doing what they want us to do? Are we subject to demons with no recourse? No. There are certainly powerful companies and governments vying to interject their agenda into the hearts and minds of people all around the globe. But no, there isn't an illuminati, nor are elected officials lizard people. The truth is much more mundane: money talks. Most politicians are first and foremost trying to be re-elected and secondly trying to govern and help their constituents. Corporations are first and foremost trying to make money and secondly help their customers. The most likely scenario is that people are flawed, selfish and not too smart (on the whole) and instead of a grand conspiracy of world-controlling shadow-people, they're just trying to hang on to their own and aren't really thinking things through. Then, when things go wrong, trying to shift the blame to anyone or anything else.

So, what can we do in the face of corporate greed and human incompetence? Think critically. Don't take anything that anyone says or writes for granted (even me!) and try to learn more about the subjects you care about. Read some books, not just tweets. Read some scholarly articles (e.g. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology).

And most of all, learn empathy. Before you decry and vilify someone who thinks differently from you, take some time to learn about where they're coming from. However, if you only get your news from one source and believe that there are kids being held in the basement of a pizza joint, maybe you should take a good, hard look at yourself and read more science books.