Spreading Fear for Profit

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoax Etiquette

Fake news sites are using Facebook to spread Ebola panic
by Josh Dzieza
The Verge
October 22, 2014

They call themselves satire sites, but they’re really spreading scary rumors for profit

There’s a scary story bouncing around Facebook, accruing hundreds of thousands of likes: the small town of Purdon, Texas, has been quarantined after a family of five was diagnosed with Ebola. The story is a total hoax, put out by a deeply cynical site called the National Report. But to the 340,000 people who saw it pop up in their news feed, it looked real enough to share.

“We’ve seen stories on satire sites — fake news sites — getting tremendous traction because they feed on people’s fears,” says Craig Silverman, the founder of Emergent.Info. “It’s really becoming an epidemic now.” Silverman launched Emergent with Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism last month to track the spread of rumors online in real time. Many of the stories he’s seen have been organic rumors, things like the pumpkin spice condom or the 50-foot crab that begin life as jokes, get taken out of context, are written up in news stories, and take off on Facebook before anyone bothers to verify them. But he’s finding that a surprising number, especially when it comes to Ebola, are deliberate attempts to deceive. “I’ve had people emailing me about the Purdon story, very scared, asking if it was true,” says Silverman.

Emergent's chart of the spreading Purdon hoax. Green represents shares linking to the hoax, red represents shares debunking it.

Emergent’s chart of the spreading Purdon hoax. Green represents shares linking to the hoax, red represents shares debunking it.

These sites claim to be satirical but lack even incompetent attempts at anything resembling humor. They’re really fake news sites, posting scary stories and capitalizing on the decontextualization of Facebook’s news feed to trick people into sharing them widely. On Facebook, where stories look pretty much the same no matter what publication they’re coming from, and where news feeds are already full of panicked school closures, infected ISIS bogeymen, and DIY hazmat suits, the stories can fool inattentive readers into thinking they’re real. Panicked, they share, spreading the rumor farther and sending more readers to the story, generating ad revenue for the site.

It’s proving to be a very successful strategy, particularly for a site called the National Report, which saw its traffic spike to 2 million unique visitors yesterday according to Quantcast. Very few are repeat visitors, meaning they’re just seeing the link on Facebook and clicking.

The tendency for bad satire to take off on Facebook is well-documented. I’m not talking about The Onion, which is absurd and funny enough that most people paying attention can’t mistake it for real news, and well-enough known that anyone who does will be quickly mocked. The problem is more with sites like The Daily Currant, whose brand of just-barely-unbelievable stories are political share-bait and have suckered more than a few actual publications into aggregating its stories as news. The Awl’s John Herrman calls it the Borowitz Problem, after The New Yorker humor columnist whose pandering fake news often gets shared far out of proportion — I hope — to the people who actually find it funny. “When you publish a fake headline that sounds almost real, place it on top of satire that’s soft enough to skim without really reading, give it a newyorker.com URL, and promote it on Facebook, where basically every headline sounds like satire now, you know what you’re really doing,” Herrman writes.

Read the rest of this article here.

via DIGG