According to Snopes, Fake News Is Not the Problem

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I am the head of editorial for Backchannel. I write about the business and culture of technology. And I want to edit your stories on those topics as well.
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According to Snopes, Fake News Is Not the Problem

Take it from the internet’s chief myth busters: The problem is the failing media.

Snopes Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski

The day after the election, news began swirling around social media that New York Times columnist David Brooks had called for President-elect Donald Trump’s assassination. Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski had a feeling it was fake. Because, come on now, would a prominent columnist for a reputable news outlet really make that kind of comment?

Snopes has made its business out of correcting the misunderstood satire, malicious falsehoods, and poorly informed gossip that echoes across the internet — and that business is booming. Traffic jumped 85 percent over the past year to 13.6 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore. The site supports itself through advertising, and in the last three years it has made enough money to quadruple the size of its staff.

Sure enough, a bit of Snopes reporting revealed that Brooks had written a column saying Trump would likely resign or be impeached within a year. A news item published on The Rightists claimed Brooks had then said in an interview for KYRQ Radio New York that Trump should be killed. Snopes found The Rightists doesn’t even pretend to traffic in truth. In the site’s “about” section, it describes itself this way: “This is HYBRID site of news and satire. part [sic] of our stories already happens, part, not yet. NOT all of our stories are true!” What’s more, the story’s facts didn’t add up. For example, the site claimed Brooks had made the comments on a radio station — KYRQ — that didn’t exist.

Verdict: FALSE.

This is the state of truth on the internet in 2016, now that it is as easy for a Macedonian teenager to create a website as it is for The New York Times, and now that the information most likely to find a large audience is that which is most alarming, not most correct. In the wake of the election, the spread of this kind of phony news on Facebook and other social media platforms has come under fire for stoking fears and influencing the election’s outcome. Both Facebook and Google have taken moves to bar fake news sites from their advertising platforms, aiming to cut off the sites’ sources of revenue.

But as managing editor of the fact-checking site Snopes, Brooke Binkowski believes Facebook’s perpetuation of phony news is not to blame for our epidemic of misinformation. “It’s not social media that’s the problem,” she says emphatically. “People are looking for somebody to pick on. The alt-rights have been empowered and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But they also have always been around.”

The misinformation crisis, according to Binkowski, stems from something more pernicious. In the past, the sources of accurate information were recognizable enough that phony news was relatively easy for a discerning reader to identify and discredit. The problem, Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer. The reasons are familiar: as the business of news has grown tougher, many outlets have been stripped of the resources they need for journalists to do their jobs correctly. “When you’re on your fifth story of the day and there’s no editor because the editor’s been fired and there’s no fact checker so you have to Google it yourself and you don’t have access to any academic journals or anything like that, you will screw stories up,” she says.

Founded two decades ago to debunk urban legends, Snopes has grown into a major correction operation with an editorial staff of nearly a dozen people sifting through the internet for news that smells fishy. No, delayed military absentee ballots would not have swung the election. No, Melania Trump has not filed for divorce, nor was her husband born in Pakistan. No, Mike Pence definitely did not tell Fox News that gay conversion therapy saved his marriage.

Snopes reporters often choose stories to investigate based on their own web reading. “You know, some of us are just inaccuracy snobs, but some of us are ideologues, too,” Binkowski says. She certainly falls into that camp. I believe in sunlight being the best disinfectant, and I believe in the power of the truth,” she says.

The incendiary made-up headlines are often the most straightforward falsehoods to identify. “Honestly, most of the fake news is incredibly easy to debunk because it’s such obvious bullshit,” she says. “A site will have something buried somewhere on it that says, ‘This is intended to be satire. Don’t sue us.’”

Binkowski says the more important work involves setting the record straight at legitimate publications that get things wrong. For example, in December, a story about El Chapo threatening ISIS appeared in the New York Post, on Forbes, and in the Washington Times, among other outlets. It didn’t sit right with a Snopes reporter, yet news outlets were reporting — and rereporting — the story. Binkowski had spent a portion of her professional journalistic career covering the border region between Mexico and the United States. “If El Chapo had made a statement like this, I would have heard about it because I’m in contact with all these Zapatista groups in Mexico,” she says. So she tracked down the original author of the information, a Brit who had written the piece as satire. “He was like, ‘I didn’t think this was going to go viral. I guess I just really nailed that El Chapo narrative,’” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you sure did.’” Snopes published a story in which the author said that the El Chapo story was satire and he’d never intended it to get so big. As a result, the duped publications ran corrections.

Binkowski also points to the challenges the media face in relaying complex information quickly and accurately. To help, recently Snopes has begun to publish important news-related information as a resource for journalists and others. Last week, for example, Binkowski wrote a piece about how the electoral college functions that served as a reference for other reporters writing about the election. “It’s really complex stuff that you can’t just read about and then write about,” she says. “We’re going to be doing more of that.”

Two decades into its existence, Snopes has built a strong brand as a credible myth buster. If you aren’t sure whether something is true, Google it. If a Snopes link is among your first search results, it’s probably not. Even so, corrections rarely get the attention the original stories generate. Against the viral tidal wave of misinformation, it can be hard to tell how much impact the Snopes team is having. “The only thing that we are doing that we can really keep doing is: just say the truth again and again and again and again and again, and just keep doing it,” says Binkowski. “You have to really have a specific type of personality to not want to just go back to bed.”

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    Jessi Hempel

    I am the head of editorial for Backchannel. I write about the business and culture of technology. And I want to edit your stories on those topics as well.

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