Star reporter Claas Relotius was exposed as a fabulist when a magazine colleague questioned his reporting and “citizen journalists” from a small town in Minnesota took time to scrutinize his descriptions about people and places. Critics of Der Spiegel’s political coverage reveled in unmistakable schadenfreude over the failure of the publication’s vaunted fact-checking team.
I don’t want bore anyone with a morality tale, but the scandal showed that falsehoods have a way of being revealed among unhindered communication channels.
The broader difficulty is finding facts when so much of the internet is fake, as columnist Max Read described last week in New York magazine. His analysis reads like a satire of digital media, except that he cites numerous examples of fake media metrics, online personas, businesses, political discussions and content.
“Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems and unregulated platform marketplaces have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real,” he writes.
Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO, agreed with Read’s analysis, as she posted in a tweet: “It's all true: Everything is fake.”
She said she learned that no one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users. Every time a roaming mobile user is handed off to another cell tower, the switch looks like another user and inflates user metrics, she said.
Just as fake reporting was exposed at Der Spiegel, the “fake everything” of the internet is gaining more attention. That awareness will invite more counterbalancing forces that expose fraud and other nefarious activity.
Fake internet activity may have reached the breaking point in 2018 as Facebook contended with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and committed to cleaning up its platform. While the company is an imperfect watchdog of fake online activity, it continually purges its platforms, including Instagram or bots.
The need to detect digital ad fraud has spawned a budding industry that aims to help advertisers avoid getting scammed by bots, click farms and social influencers with fake followers. As these companies develop more sophisticated methods of detecting fake activity, advertisers likely will gain greater reassurances their ads are being seen by real people.
“Fake news” entered the lexicon two years ago as political pundits sought to explain Donald Trump’s upset victory. As president, Trump has embraced the term and used it to fire back at his critics in the news media. The term is starting to lose its original meaning as a description of alleged Russian propaganda efforts on social media.
It’s difficult to know how much fake news influenced voters in the last presidential election, despite studies that claim it had a pronounced effect. Almost all major news media outlets offered readers and viewers confident predictions that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Those claims turned out to be the fakest news of all.