BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In 2016, a new pollutant began increasingly contaminating the media ecosystem, so-called “fake news” from fake websites, creating alternative realities for the left and the right, pushing both deeper and deeper into the partisan bubbles. The culprits, savvy entrepreneurs like the Macedonian teenagers who built bogus pro-Trump sites, then feasted on the clicks and Google AdSense revenue. It was a tidy narrative. But did it miss the point? Fake news, after all, is simply a convenient vehicle for the real product, outrage, which drives traffic, social sharing, revenue and more outrage.
Craig Silverman is the media editor at BuzzFeed. He’s reported on the big players in the hyper-partisan click bait game, players like American News, LLC.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: They’re a company, as far as I could tell, run by two guys from California. They’re a unique kind of breed of these hyper-partisan entrepreneurs in that they own at least two sites that are conservative, as well as two sites that are liberal.
BOB GARFIELD: When you say that they're doing the same thing from the left and from the right, you're not kidding because it's often the same content, just with a few word changes that altogether flip the meaning and the audience.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: That's right. So I came across one article on a conservative website, conservative101.com, and the headline was, White House Just Gave Conway the Boot. Prepare to be Infuriated, reporting, inaccurately, [LAUGHS] that Kellyanne Conway have been kicked out of the White House. And as I was kind of looking into that story, I came across a similar story on a liberal site called liberalsociety.com, and the headline of that was, White House Finally Gives Kellyanne Conway the Boot. Are you glad? They used the exact same image. And then when I actually read the articles, I found that they embedded the exact same tweets and, really, there was probably only about 15 to 20 words that were different between the two of them. And through tracking back I realized that oh, they were actually run and owned by the same company. The, the game for these sites is Facebook. That's really all they care about. They don't care about search, they don't care about building necessarily an audience that comes back to them every day. They care about crafting a headline and an associated thumbnail that someone will see on Facebook and it will get that emotional reaction right away. And it's playing to, obviously, our biases and it’s playing to also the things about Facebook's platform that really enable content to move quickly.
And I think the election, one of the takeaways of it is that the stuff that was more partisan and that often bled into the world of being misleading or false tended to perform better.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of this stuff, as I gather from your BuzzFeed piece, doesn't even bother to pretend that it's policy-based. It’s just like triumphalism: we won and you lost!
CRAIG SILVERMAN: It is very much about demonizing the other side and also giving people good news, no matter what's actually happening or what's going on, feeding them good news that makes them feel like their side is winning.
When I first published that story, somebody on Twitter said that in the fight game it's always the promoter who wins the most. And I think that that’s probably true with what's going on here, is you've got some very big networks, particularly on the right, capitalizing on this stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, hyper-partisanship isn't new in the media. The phenomenon you're describing is the convergence of technology, and particularly social media, and the marketplace for outrage. What happened that made this cottage industry so blow up in the 2016 election cycle?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: If you look at data from Pew and other places that really do kind of try to quantify polarization, they do find more and more people moving to the edges of right and left. So we have an increasingly polarized society. That's one piece of it.
A second really important piece is that if you look at the 2012 election, Facebook wasn’t a really big factor when it came to news and now, all of a sudden, in 2016, it is a place where a huge amount of Americans are getting their news from. In fact, we did a survey and we found that as many American adults had gotten news from Facebook in the previous 30 days as they had from broadcast TV. And those are the two highest numbers. So Facebook suddenly, a huge news effect, and Facebook's algorithm is really deciding what people see. And the algorithm takes signals from you and from me when we like something or comment on something. And so, the more that people react strongly to something, the more exposure that content gets.
BOB GARFIELD: The Facebook algorithm is engineered to be a feedback loop.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: To feed you more of what you most reacted to. And over time, the people who run these hyper-partisan sites and people who run other types of sites started to see, frankly, that the stuff that went to emotions, such as anger or frustration or sometimes, you know, extreme happiness, that was the stuff that got people to click on it, and then the more people who clicked or liked, the more people the algorithm would show it to. And so, you combine that with polarization and then you bring in a really wild election that, of course, generates a huge amount of attention, and it was a massive business opportunity, so the amount of hyper-partisan sites exploded in 2016, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: But is there any way back from this? Now that we are in this cycle, this endless cycle, where they have so profited from the phenomenon, is there any way back?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: I was talking yesterday with someone who runs a site on the right and a site on the left, and whether he's being sincere or not, he was saying how he's now ready to take his sites into the middle and he feels that there is a little bit of a burnout happening right now. Particularly on the conservative side now that Trump is in power and you don't have enemies like Clinton and Obama, maybe now there is a way to start shifting the site and feeding people stuff that’s a little more in the center. He talks about that as an experiment. He doesn’t know if it's going to work. I frankly don't think it's gonna work because the liberal sites are growing very well by creating outrage stuff around Trump every single day.
And so, how do we get back from it? Well, he thinks the only solution is if there was basically some kind of a ceasefire, if everybody who was [LAUGHS] running these sites, or the big players at least, sat down with Facebook and Facebook said, listen, you know, everyone has to stop these over-the-top headlines and the over-the-top thumbnails. Here are the rules of the road and if you don't obey them, then we’re gonna take down your page. He says that that’s probably the only way for it to get reined in.
BOB GARFIELD: Craig, as always, [LAUGHS] thank you, thank you, thank you.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Craig Silverman is the media editor at BuzzFeed.