On Tuesday, Facebook announced something of vast importance to anyone in politics or anyone who covers politics. The social network would start punishing sources that spread fake news. "When you click to hide a story you also have the option to report the content," the company said. "Stories that include scams, or deliberately misleading news, are reported two and a half times more often than links to other news stories."
This was described as a way to fight actual crime, which was diplomatic; the larger and more viral problem is the mass sharing of bogus clickbait news under the guise of "satire." For years, an obscure colony of sites have gotten monster traffic (and started no small number of arguments between relatives) by publishing stories that key off the news in some way but add outrageous details. Snopes.com is full of these stories, from the tale of Representative Michele Bachmann threatening to leave Minnesota over gay marriage, to President Barack Obama telling young people not to celebrate Independence Day, to Ebola cases that the rest of the media would not report. Because the cases did not exist.
No story is too stupid for this genre—or too stupid to go viral. Earlier this month, the actor James Woods tweeted a fake quote from California Senator Dianne Feinstein, which originated at a "satire" site. Feinstein, a gun control proponent who became mayor of San Francisco after two colleagues were assassinated, was "quoted" saying that a gunman would "lay down his arms" if he realized that his victims were unarmed. This obvious bogosity zoomed around the Internet after the Charlie Hebdo killings, when it was memed with a picture of the killers. Woods's tweets of the memes, which had been widely shared on Facebook, got thousands of retweets.
And this wasn't the nadir of the genre. In a 2014 story for the New Republic, Emmett Rensin described how "satire" sites often took humor content and rebranded it as "news," because "news" stories were more likely to generate hate-clicks and "literally unbelievable" reactions than stories clearly branded as jokes.
The Adobo Chronicles, for example, is a seemingly well-intentioned, relatively ad-free satirical site. Its sole writer, Rene Astudillo, told me he donates the majority of his limited ad revenue to charity. In March, he ran a story claiming the American Psychiatric Association had classified “selfitis”—the taking of selfie photos—as a medical disorder. A solid joke: It was shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook. Less than a week later, Demyx took the article verbatim, cut the overtly comedic final paragraph, and threw it up on their ad-saturated page. They got 18,200 shares.
The Daily Currant, a fake news site that's more open about its intentions than the real clickbaiters, has been duping Facebook users—and occasionally other news sites—for years. Daniel Barkeley, the site's founder, was optimistic that the "fake news" penalty boxes wouldn't trap him.
"It depends on how exactly the algorithm is structured," wrote Barkeley in an e-mail. "Different types of humor appeal to different types of people. All we care about is getting our content in front of the people who enjoy it as humor. Facebook plays a central role in online content distribution, and I believe it will continue to do an outstanding job balancing the interests of all its stakeholders. Political satire is and always has been an important part of our nation's political discourse, and I imagine it will continue to succeed on Facebook's platform going forward."