Thursday, January 19, 2017

The lucrative Fake News business

The US presidential election has rekindled the debate over how easy it is to write and spread fake news all over the internet, and what should be made to prevent it. But it won't be easy to fight something that, besides all the potential for malicious manipulation, can earn thousands of dollars for just a few minutes of work.

Just ask Cameron Harris, responsible for the site ChristianTimesNewspaper, and excels at creating fake news. Normally, he would already earn a few thousand dollars thanks to fake news like at the expense of publicity gained from articles like "Hillary Clinton Files for Divorce" and "NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring"; but his masterpiece ended up being "BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse".

It was as fake any other of his news, but it got traction and went viral among Trump supporters, reaching roughly 6 million people... and yielding about $5,000 in ads to Cameron - not bad for about 15 minutes of work. According to him, he averaged about $1000 per hour during the election. Not a bad income for a part time job taking just a couple of hours per week, built on top of a $5 internet domain. And he could have earned even more: at its highest point his site was valued at over $100k - an opportunity he should have taken as, soon after, Google stopped allowing it's adsense program from running in fake news sites.

Interestingly enough, Cameron Harris himself confesses to be amazed at how easily people believe everything they read on the internet, not bothering to think for a second if things might be real or not. Just like there's no shortage of sites dedicated to fake news, there are also sites dedicated to fact check them, like (which even unmasks several news from Cameron Harris' site). But it's easy to see that among "fervent" groups of people (and this is not something that is limited to political issues) many are only interested in reading a title that confirms their suspicions or desires ... caring little if it's true or not.

With the exception of cases where we have false news with the aim of manipulating public opinion, we may consider that in the majority of people behind fake news are only interested in making money from their sites. It can be considered as an evolution of click-baiting, where sensationalist titles were already used to attract clicks; just like YouTubers use fake appealing screenshots to make people click on videos which have nothing to do with the image that was shown.

As long as this type of activity continues to make money, it is logical to assume that it will be very hard to stop it ... quite the opposite: with the prospect of being able to earn thousands of dollars for a few hours of work, writing nothing but fake news out of your head, I suspect lots more will try their luck on the market.

So, keep in mind that, just because you read it on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter), it doesn't mean that it's automatically true. And the sad part is... if people don't even care anymore.

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