I’ve complained about clickbait of the Buzzfeed and Upworthy variety an awful lot in the last couple of years, and I know I’m not alone. It’s silly, manipulative, least-common-denominator, and it lowers the discourse considerably. I’ve long felt that when this particular era of Internet culture passes, we’ll all be the better for it.
But say what you will about stuff like “What happened to this dog will blow your mind” and “30 things only ’80s kids from Sheboygan know.” At least they weren’t based on abject falsehoods.
This week alone, I’ve read that Orange is the New Black was suddenly canceled, that the city of Chicago was officially declared a war zone, and that dozens of people in Colorado died of marijuana overdoses.
None of those things are true; all were reported by “parody sites” that bill themselves as “satire.” But- as Emmett Rensin pointed out in the New Republic a few months ago- the Onion is satire; these sites are not, because they’re neither funny nor making any particular satirical point. Their business model is to use false news stories and false information to draw clicks, and hopefully go viral by getting readers to spread this untrue information.
And it has to stop. Facebook and Google should be doing everything they can with their algorithms to push this garbage to the bottom.
Look at the Orange is the New Black story, from a gutter site called Empire News, which I refuse to link to. It’s an official-looking news story claiming that this beloved, acclaimed series is no more, and that the first two seasons would be pulled from Netflix as well. The story also puts a quote in the mouth of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stating that he was canceling the show because “a woman’s place is in the home, in the kitchen, taking care of children.”
The story is obviously false, serving to bum out and outrage anyone who enjoys this wonderful program. But where’s the satire? How is it in any way funny? Hastings- unlike some Silicon Valley CEOs- has no reputation as a raging misogynist. What’s the point of attributing such an ugly quote to a real person? That quote is probably going to haunt the real-life Reed Hastings for years, even though he didn’t really say it.
This isn’t true, and isn’t funny. It’s not even a “prank” either- there’s no reveal. And it’s not even trolling- it’s way worse than that. It’s just grossly insidious and dishonest, both a crime against truth and against comedy. And the worst part is, it’s working- according to Gawker’s invaluable bullshit-debunking vertical Antiviral, the bogus piece had been shared more than 600,000 times as of this morning.
But it’s not just those awful sites that are dedicated to spreading utter falsehoods in the name of clicks. It’s practically impossible to follow the NBA free agent season without seeing false trade news pushed into your timeline by jokers pretending to be famous NBA reporters (one such account, impersonating ace Yahoo reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, somehow managed to gain Twitter verification.)
And in more serious life-and-death matters, have you tried following what’s going on in Israel? When it comes to that subject- probably the most contentious of anything in the world- it seems like half of what shows up in my feeds, no matter which side it comes from, is demonstrably false. That’s true whether it’s a “speech” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatening to annex the Gaza Strip, or photos of Palestinian casualties that are obviously from other wars and/or other years.
If only this blatant disregard for truth were confined only to the Internet.
Take a look at the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. The #1 entry this week is “Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas” a book by journalist Edward Klein that purports to detail behind-the-scenes stories of battle between the Obamas and the Clintons. (Hillary’s own book is #2.)
To call Klein a bottom-feeding hack and the book full of lies could almost be called charitable. Politically partisan books that stretch the truth are nothing new- brand new ones appear just about every week. But Klein’s work breaks new ground- it’s a purportedly reported book that is, quite simply, fabricated. It reports various conversations and events that simply never happened. Klein, for this book and previous ones, has been called out for factual inconsistencies time after time after time. (The phrase “fan fiction” has come up more than once.)
Fabricating information used to be cause of excommunication in journalism; not anymore, clearly. Klein is Stephen Glass, he is Jayson Blair. His publisher should have pulled the book.
Lying, of course, is nothing new, and neither are hoaxes. But it’s starting to appear that way too many of us are okay with this massive spreading of false information. Let’s put a stop to this. Before you share something on social media, check it. If something sounds “too good to check,” it probably is. And just because a piece of information supports your argument, doesn’t mean it’s true.