Friday, February 5, 2016

Spotting the Bullshit Entrepreneurs

The very first headline on my Facebook feed this past Monday seemed designed to grab my attention. “Drug Kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Escapes Mexican Prison Once Again,” it screamed in oversize type, highlighted with an aged file photo of El Chapo looking stereotypically greasy. Given El Chapo’s violent history, and pattern of slipping unnoticed into American territory, I clicked the link.

Immediately, something felt wrong. The ABC News logo appeared distorted. The page took absurdly long to load. (I’m not linking the page here because I suspect it dumps a torrent of tracking cookies.) It misspelled common words in journalism, like “extradite.” And despite giving a detailed timeline of El Chapo’s escape, it cited no named sources. As evidence accumulated, I realized I’d probably gotten Punk’d.

In late 2015, Caitlin Dewey claimed on NPR that she ended her long-running Washington Post column “What Was Fake On The Internet This Week” for one simple reason: one person couldn’t possibly stay abreast of the Internet’s lucrative bullshit industry. Advertising aggregators don’t check the sites that purchase their product. Thus, until clickbait stops attracting social media visits, fake news sites will remain lucrative businesses.

Bullshit is, sadly enough, a growth industry.

Last time I wrote about this problem, my Spidey Sense flipped over an article accusing Senator Ted Cruz of blaming Texas flooding on Native American rain dances. But I made a fundamental mistake: I identified a specific offender. “Naming and shaming” apparently works; eight months later, that specific website has gone away. But the underlying problem has not. Bullshit vendors change their domain names, and persevere undeterred.

Therefore, rather than identify specific fake news websites (smarter critics than I have done it better anyway), let’s consider what red flags clearly identify fake news:

- The URL looks slightly off
This latest time, I got bilked by a website claiming to be ABC News. But I didn’t look closely. The ABC network’s news website is, but I noticed too late that I’d clicked on That particular domain suffix,, is common for news fakery, and “spoof” websites have been established for MSNBC, CNN, NBC News, and other legitimate news and opinion sources.

Similarly, many new fakers purchase domains that look almost plausible. The National Report and World News Daily Report could, conceivably, be legitimate newspaper titles. But generally, the URL contains red flags to avoid taking these sites seriously. So stop reposting “news” from sources like, lest friends think that address describes you.

- They don’t cite sources
This one causes problems. Political reporters will often cite unnamed sources because their insider sources rely upon anonymity to keep their jobs. Likewise, crime reporters frequently won’t name sources, because they can’t blow ongoing operations or undercut a case still awaiting trial.

However, serious journalists will fact-check anonymous sources with named sources. Somebody reporting Oval Office leaks wouldn’t dare reprint accusations without first checking somebody who could be named. If, tomorrow, anonymous sources leaked claims that President Obama was banning tobacco, good journalists would ask spokespeople from the ONDCP, ATF, or at least Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Without that fact-checking, journalism would be mere scandal-mongering.

- The design looks cheap
Fake news sites are generally scripted hastily. They’re backdrops for the advertising, which gets the domain owners paid. If company logos look like they were done in one sitting, using Microsoft Paint, that’s a good sign we’re viewing a phoney site. The logo at looked like a vague approximation of the official ABC News logo, without that boring old dimensionality, contrast, or care.

Top: real
Bottom: FAKE
The same goes for other graphics. Legitimate news-gathering sites try to include new photos where they can; fake news sites’ photos are so vague, they clearly came from a Google image search. (I know mine are no better, but I’m a part-timer, and I don’t even pretend to be anything but a blogger.) Fake news sites generally lack any interactive content, or maybe just a comments list. Anything more requires expensive, time-consuming programming that fakers don’t care about.

Checking the links helps, too. Because the Internet allows instant cross-checking, serious news organizations will include links to prior stories, rather than making readers sit through another reiteration of the background and context. Hovering over the links in the El Chapo story, by contrast, I found over two-thirds of them redirected to Wikipedia. These links were purely for set dressing.

- They have sloppy copy editing
Misspellings and careless grammar aren’t just lackadaisical. They serve important business purposes. Should their stories go viral and cause emotive backlash, content creators can grin, point critics toward their haphazard writing, and say: “Nobody should’ve mistaken this for legitimate news.” Sadly, in free speech countries like America, this defense is legally solid.

- They have very little content
Most clickbait readers don’t follow links beyond the landing page. But sometimes, if a story feels fishy, checking the home page helps frame the debate. Real news is constantly updated, and will have dozens, or more, stories dated today on the front page. Because fake news is essentially creative writing, and because these sites generally have only one employee, they don’t update nearly as often. Most fake sites, like, update less than once per day.

- They verify your existing prejudices
Okay, this one is slippery. Partisan opinion channels like MSNBC and Fox News unambiguously cater to their audiences’ prior expectations. But fake news sources go further.

The El Chapo article that spurred this commentary was larded with comments accusing President Obama of culpability, somehow, for a Mexican criminal escaping a Mexican prison. This tendency was emphasized by linked articles claiming President Obama had signed an executive order limiting private citizens to owning three firearms, and Donald Trump had selected Sheriff Joe Arpaio as his running mate.

So basically, exists to fan conservative flames. The late, unlamented Stately Harold did something similar for liberals. By encouraging readers to cross-post their content on social media (Stately Harold even urged readers to tweet specific hashtags), they don’t just generate traffic. They actively set readers up for partisan mockery.

- They’re just too perfect
The news, like real life, is sloppy. One day, stock market returns and international news seemingly verify left-wing collectivist ideology; the next day, something awful on the police blotter apparently proves conservative authoritarians correct. Interpretations of fact are usually subject to debate, and desperate journalists can only run “he-said, she-said” coverage. Legitimate news is often more confusing than clear, at least to committed readers.

Fake news, by contrast, seldom has loose ends. It fits an inflexible view of the world: El Chapo is Evil, and President Obama is a dictator, but Donald Trump has the authoritarian hand to fix everything. Or, Ted Cruz is so silly, so overwhelmingly racist and anti-science, that he’d obviously rather blame rain on Indians than global warming. Or whatever, take your pick: if you finish reading a “news” article even more secure in your pre-existing beliefs, it’s probably fake.

Real news should make us at least slightly uncomfortable. I don’t mean firing us up with righteous indignation; real news should make us doubt our neat opinions, at least sometimes. Reality isn’t ideological. Smart, informed readers should frequently finish reading news items and struggle to wrap our heads around it. If the only thing we can say is, “See? I was right,” it’s probably fake.

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