According to the National Prevarication Institute, more than 5,000 Americans die each year from exposure to fake news.
That is, of course, not true. There’s no National Prevarication Institute, and if exposure to fake news was deadly we would all be in the ground.
But the truth — the real truth — is that fake news is unhealthy, both to Americans and to American democracy.
An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that in the final three months of the presidential campaign, "the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others."
That’s because the algorithm that Facebook uses to prioritize news in people’s news feeds relies heavily on how many people are clicking on a story, and stories that sound nutty draw clicks.
BuzzFeed reported: "During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook."
That is both astonishing and terrifying. This week, both Google and Facebook announced they would try to limit the spread of fake news by making it harder for websites peddling nonsense to access the advertisers that turn them into cash cows.
It’s a step, but I doubt it will do much to halt faux news. The supply exists in part because there’s a demand. Simply put: People want to read what they want to believe is true.
It’s not about information, it’s about confirming our own biased views of the world. And, if we’re being honest, it’s about laziness.
Does that sound harsh? Consider this:
A person who hates Hillary Clinton sees a story claiming that Clinton has used Haitian orphans as unpaid housekeepers for the past five years. The easy path is to believe the story and share it with Facebook friends under the comment: "SEE! I TOLD YOU SHE WAS EVIL!"
The slightly less easy — although still quite easy — path is to Google "Clinton Haitian orphans" and see if any legitimate news outlets have reported on that claim or if any fact-checking groups have found it true or false. If you find no other mention of the story you so desperately want to believe, guess what? It’s a load of crap.
Anyone who shares stories like that — inflammatory tales distributed by blogs or websites few have heard of — is either purposefully trying to deceive people or is too lazy to spend one minute checking the facts.
If your response to that is to say the mainstream media can’t be trusted, you are living in a world untethered from the truth.
If a writer for a fake news website wrote about Clinton having Haitian orphan housekeepers, he or she would get paid and, if the story got 200,000 clicks, probably lauded for a fine day’s work.
If a reporter at the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times or the Washington Post wrote a made-up story about Clinton having Haitian orphan housekeepers: a) the story wouldn’t get published; or b) if it did accidentally get published, the paper would issue a massive correction and the reporter and any editors involved would either be fired or severely reprimanded.
Those are called consequences, and that’s what separates legitimate news organizations from phony ones. And that matters.
Even as a columnist — a role that allows me to express my opinion — I’m held accountable for factual errors in anything I write. I can’t just make stuff up, and if I do I have to be clear that it’s made up, as I did at the beginning of this column.
All media outlets make mistakes, of course. And readers or viewers are going to see bias, sometimes because there’s actual bias and sometimes because the writer or broadcaster just isn’t telling the readers or viewers enough of what they want to hear.
But you won’t read a story on a newspaper website or watch a news segment on television that is fabricated. You may not like what it says, but your opinion doesn’t override reality.
When people lazily trust fake news that serves only to affirm their worldview, they disconnect from the real world. That can feel nice, but it leads us all down a rather dark path.
The Washington Post interviewed Paul Horner, a man who has been making good money writing fake news. He described the current market like this: "Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore."
If you’re letting yourself buy into fake news, know that even the people writing it think you’re dumb. Perhaps that will shake you up enough to get you to spend a few extra moments figuring out whether what you’re reading is fact or fiction.
Remember all the things we were told President Barack Obama was going to do? The death panels, taking away everyone’s guns, implementing Sharia law?
Yeah, none of that happened. And the people who believed that stuff — which bubbled up from nonsense news sites and was regurgitated by self-serving pundits and politicians — were suckered because it’s what they wanted to believe.
You can’t make excuses anymore. The fake garbage is too prevalent and has been too fully exposed. If you share shocking "news" without bothering to verify its veracity, you can no longer claim to be the innocent victim of an internet hoax.
You’re either so wrapped up in your opinions that facts have ceased to matter or, worse yet, you’re just plain lazy.