The ‘thrill of the chase’ in perpetuating fake news

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A general view of the exterior of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, U.S. December 5, 2016. The pizzeria vowed on Monday to stay open despite a shooting incident sparked by a fake news report that it was fronting a child sex ring run by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTSUS6D

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JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a week where the problems of so-called fake news, often just a name for an out-and-out lie or unproven claim, were evident once again, and this time led to alarming consequences.

Hari Sreenivasan joins us from our New York studio tonight with a look at the latest concerns in the beginning of a periodic series on the subject.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Viral conspiracy theories masquerading as news spread at incredible speeds throughout the election cycle across social platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and 4chan, but on December 4 came a very real measure of their impact.

A 28-year-old man from North Carolina man entered Comet Ping Pong pizza in Washington, D.C., armed with an assault rifle, claiming he wanted to — quote — “self-investigate” a fast-spreading theory.

Edgar Maddison Welch, seen here with his arms up, was intrigued by the totally false conspiracy theory that the pizzeria was part of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager. After aiming at an employee and discharging a weapon, he surrendered to authorities. Luckily, everyone inside escaped unharmed.

This week, more fallout from what has been dubbed as Pizzagate: The Trump transition team removed Michael Flynn Jr., the son of the man president-elect Trump wants as his national security adviser, after it became clear that Flynn Jr. was retweeting this and other conspiracies.

Hillary Clinton, herself the target of other lies spread over the Web repeatedly, weighed in during one of her few public appearances since the election.

HILLARY CLINTON, 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee: It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk, lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Technology companies like Facebook and Google say they are working to tackle the proliferation of fake news. One way has been to decrease the incentives for advertising that appears on these sites.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, on Thursday’s “Today Show”:

SHERYL SANDBERG, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook: We have taken important steps, but there is a lot more to do. We know that people don’t want to see hoaxes on Facebook and we don’t want to see hoaxes on Facebook.

HARI SREENIVASAN: According to a BuzzFeed News investigation, many fake news sites are built purely for profit, sometimes even created by opportunistic teens in far-off places like Macedonia, regardless of the content, because more clicks lead to more dollars.

What is motivating the rise of fake news, and what tools are tech companies developing to stop its spread?

As part of a series of conversations, I’m joined by Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, who wrote one of the deeper dives into how this baseless story spread so fast and how it almost ended in tragedy.

Marc, this is one of the first stories that I think drew a connection for people that virtual hoaxes have real-world consequences.

MARC FISHER, The Washington Post: Well, they absolutely do.

And we saw this when a gunman walked into the pizza place that was the subject of this false rumor about a supposed sex ring that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her campaign chairman, were running in a residential neighborhood pizza place in Washington, D.C.

And what we were able to do was to kind of trace this back to patient zero, looking back to, how did this spread and why did it spread? And what we found was a combination of people who had a profit motive and people who were really quite innocently running across this story and deciding that it was concerning to them and they wanted to know more about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s one of the things people are going to wonder about. How do you not see the falsehood in this? Or how do you press share? Or how do you end up kind of perpetrating this lie further and further? What were the answers that people were giving you?

MARC FISHER: You know, I think there is a tendency to dismiss the people who spread these stories as uneducated or simply not understanding the technology they’re dealing with.

Anything but the case. They tend to be quite educated people. They tend to be people who are very well-connected online. And what they’re stumbling into sometimes, first of all, there’s kind of a loss of trust.

So, if you look at the whole diminution of trust across society about government, about the news media, people are looking for alternative ideas and alternative sources. That’s why they are open to these kinds of stories that they find online.

And then, once they find them, what I found in talking to the people who spread the message most widely is that they were kind of caught up in the fun of this. To them, it was kind of a game, a serious game, because they thought they were saving children who were being held in this underground sex ring, but kind of a game, where they were really enjoying the hunt.

And that thrill of the chase is really very similar to what’s most satisfying about doing journalism, but without the responsibility part. And that’s the part where they say, well — you know, it’s reminiscent of what Silicon Valley executives used to say years ago, that the Internet is a self-correcting mechanism.

A lot of the people who were involved in this believe that, and they’re really not keeping it front of mind the real-world damage, such as a gunman showing up to conduct his own investigation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what you’re kind of describing is almost a large-scale game of “Clue” being played by thousands of people. I’m aging myself with the reference to that game.

But tell us a little bit more about the people who are doing this for a profit motive.

MARC FISHER: Well, there is that side of things.

And so some people are doing it for political reasons and some people are doing it for profit. And you find some of these — an extraordinary amount of the traffic online about Pizzagate, this rumor, was going through odd places, Vietnam, Macedonia.

What’s going on there is that people are setting up sites and setting up bots, which are essentially algorithms that are used to spread a message or to retweet something many, many times. And they do this because the more they can get people coming to their site, the more advertising revenue they get from the big social media companies.

So there is a profit that can be made by taking something, however fantastic or incredible, and putting it out there in such a way that it goes viral, and then all of that Web traffic, all of those clicks turn out to — translate into dollars.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, just recently, Facebook and Google tried to take a little bit of those dollar incentives away from these fake news sites. But, other than that, what else are they doing? What else can they do?

MARC FISHER: Well, they can do a lot more than they’re doing.

And the reason we’re able to say that is, we look across the ocean to Europe, where they are doing more, under pressure from governments there that don’t have our same system of First Amendment guarantees and don’t have the kind of freedom that our Internet companies have as a result of the exemption that absolves them from responsibility for the content that they have on their sites. That’s from the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

In Europe, without those legal strictures, there is a different kind of legal system involved where these companies are now being required to remove derogatory material about people from their sites. And they’re having to do that.

So, they clearly know how to do that. They choose not to in this country, in part because it’s very expensive to have editors and producers going through and making sure that the material that is on their site is responsible.

The Internet companies tend to say, that is not our responsibility, this is purely a matter for the users to express themselves however they wish.

But if you think about the rest of our economy, there is no other product, there is no other news product or even physical product where the maker says, we have no responsibility for what we make.

That is just the nature of our commerce. We expect companies that produce things to take responsibility.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how does it change the landscape of journalism?

There is definitely a line of thought that says just by us labeling this — quote, unquote — “fake news,” instead of outright lies or conspiracy theories, that we’re elevating it to a status of respect and credibility that it doesn’t deserve.

I mean, the idea of yellow journalism has existed since the late 1800s. It helped us get into the Spanish-American War.

MARC FISHER: Sure.

And conspiracy theories have been around since the dawn of civilization. There’s biblical admonitions against them. And so that’s always been there, probably always will be.

So, the problem is not really the fake news or the speech itself. The problem is the way it’s being spread. It’s being spread more quickly and more widely through technology than ever before. And that’s the part that we haven’t gotten a handle on.

So, what is the role for traditional journalism? Obviously, fact-checking, obviously trying to build up our credibility, so that people do see that there are places that can be trusted.

But we do happen to live in a time when trust is at a relative low. And we have seen this in periods of economic trouble and political trouble in our country, after the Kennedy assassination and now after the 2008 crash.

And so, during those periods, people do look for alternative sources, and that’s what’s happening now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, one of many conversations we will be having on this topic.

Thanks so much for joining us.

MARC FISHER: Thank you.

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