Newspaper kills 'what was fake' column as pointless in internet age

You're all just too damn crazy

In a sign that the internet is indeed the end of all good and rational thoughts, The Washington Post has thrown in the towel on its "What was fake on the Internet this week" column.

In what it said would be its final column Friday, columnist Caitlin Dewey revealed that, as with many things online these days, the internet has out-crazied the crazy.

"There is nothing – NOTHING – too crazy for the Internet hoax beat," she starts, before noting that when the column started a mere 82 weeks ago (can you even remember what the internet was like in 2014?) the online world was a rosy picture of urban legends and pranks. Absurd nonsense that was fun. "Light-hearted, silly things."

Now, with the boom in social media, Facebook likes, and a general sense that society has given up altogether in even caring if something is true so long as it's shareable, there is no place for a column that says "this here is utter nonsense."

Dewey points out that the enormous rise in fake news in the past year or so has come complete with a ready acceptance that it is fake. "Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research, it's now often as simple as clicking around for an 'about' or 'disclaimer' page," she notes.

Unpleasant

What's worse is that fake news has taken on a much more unpleasant tone, with people creating fake news stories in order to reflect their own hatred and prejudices.

Just this week, the seemingly accepted fact that the San Bernardino shooters had posted their devotion to the Islamic State in a public Facebook post moments before shooting 14 of their co-workers was revealed to have been a complete fallacy. And if it hadn't been the FBI saying as much, you can imagine that most people would have continued to believe it.

Dewey references the "Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck" fake story. Anthony, if you don't remember, was the young woman who was acquitted of the murder of her two-year-old daughter despite what looked like suspicious behavior and her repeatedly changing her story (she was found guilty on four counts of providing false information and was sentenced to four years in jail).

But there have been many, many other fake news stories, and Dewey reckons it's because they have become profitable.

"Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or 'satires,' they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes."

Some of these fake sites are truly unpleasant. Take Now8News which posts ridiculous, usually unpleasant news stories but often crosses the line from humor into conflating stereotypes and aggressively mocking people, complete with real mugshots of people. World News Daily Report is a slick site that purposefully treads a fine line between believable and outrageous. Its content is often xenophobic and racist.

Like

And then there is the speed with which news is spread though non-professional outlets – people's shared Facebook updates; retweets. Following the gun attack in Paris in November, an enormous number of seemingly true stories spread like wildfire.

The Eiffel Tower was dimmed (no it wasn't); Donald Trump tweeted a tasteless comment about gun control (for once, he wasn't being offensive and was referring to the previous Paris attack); Uber's surge pricing never happened, and so on.

There was so much of it that NPR ran a story on the fact there was so much false news.

"Frankly, this column wasn't designed to address the current environment," says Dewey. "This format doesn't make sense."

In short, there is too much fake news and so many people revel in producing it that the concept of debunking seems, in her words, "pointless."

As one researcher who has looked into this phenomenon sadly recounted: "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."

Spread

And so the "What was fake on the internet this week" column is no more. The bigger issue, though, may not actually be why the internet has become such a ready purveyor of knowingly false information dressed up as truth, but rather what impact that shift has had on us as a society.

You need only tune into the campaign for the very few candidates that are vying for, and will become, the most powerful person on the planet – the President of the United States – to see that being wrong, provably wrong, and almost instantly provably wrong, appears to be less important than getting attention.

In that sense, the small column pointing out fake news could be taken as a canary in the coal mine. ®

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