Before pointing too many angry fingers at the supposed phenomenon of fake news, consider the amount of less-than-truthful articles created daily compared to the average amount of stuff on the internet every day.
The verdict? Fake news might draw 8 million clicks in three months, but that’s a small overall percentage of what readers are exposed to during a given time, argues Aram Zucker-Scharff, a developer for Salon and a freelance developer for Press Forward.
“For sure, fake news is troubling. It’s bad that there are people out there telling lies and painting it as the truth. There’s nothing that is incorrect to be worried about that,” he said. “At the same time, the scale is not as concerning as it’s painted to be.”
Buzzfeed estimated that fake news articles had about 8.7 million views over the three months leading up to the 2016 election, but “in comparison to what news organizations and the general internet gets daily, it’s relatively minor,” he said. “I compare it to a John Oliver video which, in the course of two months, gets more than half of that (amount of traffic). Some get more than that. There are John Oliver videos that got more video views, which are more significant than Facebook engagement.”
The bottom line is that fake news isn’t news in and of itself, nor is it the massive problem it’s portrayed.
What is new, or at least a more recent occurrence, is the use of ads designed to look like legitimate newspaper articles. Sometimes, as in a recent New York Times article, an ad for a fake news site is embedded into a real news story.
“If the media had any issues with this election, it came from our own internal decisions,” Zucker-Scharff said. “I think we were too reliant on polls that were not very symbolic of the electorate. This was perhaps a problem unique in this case because there were a lot of issues and many situations in which people were not willing to admit who they were voting for. Also, there’s a big disconnect between media organizations and smaller towns.”
In the past, there were reporters on the ground to call out what was happening from town to town. “We used to have local newspapers out there and now, not so much.” Voters don’t live just in “the media hotspots of D.C. and New York City,” he said.
On this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, host Michael O’Connell talks to Aram Zucker-Scharff about his recent Medium article, The media is a business and journalism is a job. Get it together., which examines the perceived threat of fake news and Facebook’s recent solution — fact-checking by news outlets like the Associated Press.