It sounds like a great idea: an entrepreneurial rapper who works at McDonald’s reportedly replaced Happy Meal toys with his mixtape.
“On the mixtapes was printed the title of the project; ‘Tales Of A Real N*gga’ was printed [sic] on the discs with a sharpie marker,” the article, which is unauthored but has a dateline of Chicago, reads on a website Huzlers.com.
“‘I bought my son a happy meal and inside came a mysterious CD,’ says Sarah Platt,’” — whom the site fails to identify in any way. She continues, “‘I, like any other parent, would assume the cd was for children.I played the cd in my car for my son while we drove home and Jesus have mercy on Tyshaun, the mixtape was dreadful.’”
Here’s what the story looked like:
The name of the site, the grammar and punctuation of the copy, and the very premise of the piece should probably have set off alarm bells to many readers.
Nevertheless, the story was picked up by Power 105.1, the most popular radio station in New York; and possibly by Complex (for whom Google still shows a straight headline), among other sites. It received nearly 1 million “Likes” on Facebook, and was Tweeted more than 3,600 times.
There is nothing on the homepage of Huzlers.com that explicitly states it is a fake news site.
But that appears to be the point.
At my old job, a few of us would occasionally play a game where we would try to think of the most potent combination of nouns and verbs that would allow a headline to become a form of clickable heroin. We decided the winner was “WATCH: Tom Brady stabs gay lover after stealing $2 million in Bitcoin.”
It’s now become clear this game is being played in real life by an array of fake news sites that seem to lack any goal other than to drive traffic.
“Social media is plagued with fake news, and many social media users are complaining that they no longer [know] what is true and what is not,” Craig Charles of That’sFake.com, one of the first sites to post a story debunking Huzler’s McDonald’s story, told Fusion in an email.
Parent site That’sNonsense.com was created in 2009 to root out internet scams. But the proliferation of fake news stories led to the creation That’s Fake last year. Such stories are the inevitable outcome of sites like ViralNova, Charles said. These were “sensationalist, clickbaity and often quite trashy,” but “were at least true,” he said.
“But then someone presumably had the brainwave of following that business model, only using news that wasn’t true,” he said. “Create a clickbaity headline, preferably centering around something controversial, dress it up like news, and publish it.”
Facebook serves as ground zero for these stories. But the company does not review individual content unless a court order requires it to do so. Nor does it make a determination on contents’ accuracy. And it does not remove content reported as false; instead it suppresses its distribution.
In January, Facebook confirmed Charles’s contention that there had been a proliferation of fake news, saying that such articles (as well as scam posts) were being reported 2.5 times more often than links to actual news stories were being shared.
While Facebook has attempted to change its algorithim to crack down on such sites, Snopes.com founder David Mikkelson says it’s clear some sites have found ways to beat it.
“Facebook can’t ban this stuff, they just greatly limit its organic reach,” he said. “But they can boost their visibility by paying for it to be boosted. So some sites are paying more than others to keep stuff visible.”
Snopes has been around for two decades, and like That’s Nonsense started out mostly debunking urban legends.
But a few years ago the site found itself devoting almost all of its resources to debunking fake news articles, including September’s champ for virality and, again from Huzlers, claims the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had found cocaine in Coors Light. (At least two of my Facebook friends shared that one.)
“The online world has enabled a more precise targeting, and a wider, more rapid spread of those types of items,” Mikkelson said.
They’ve also likely enabled revenue streams that are almost costless to create. None of the sites we reached out to responded to requests for comment. But Charles believes their raison d’etre is clear.
“Some of these sites are ranked very high, and this is netting the site owners a lot of money through the copious amounts of [cost-per-click] adverts they have on their websites,” he said.
So, can anything be done to stop these sites? If so, it likely won’t be the law. A widely shared story posted in May by World News Daily Report claimed Hillary Clinton had had an affair with Yoko Ono. It’s been shared more than 330,000 times on Facebook.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA and an expert in First Amendment issues, told Fusion that, for better or worse, the bar in the U.S. for defamation is exceptionally high—especially for public figures—and that most of these sites climb above that threshold. The fact that these sites often contain disclaimers—though usually buried deep on their site—that everything there is fake, would make any kind of litigation even more difficult.
“If the plaintiff is a public figure or a public official, the court [has] to ask: ‘Did the publisher either know or strongly suspect that the article was misleading or presented a substantially false impression?’” he said. “If the answer to that question is ‘no’–if the publisher sincerely (even unreasonably) believed that people would get the joke–then the publisher would be off the hook.”
While admitting the existence of these stories helps his site, Mikkelson said it would be unwise to try to suppress them, since attempting to do so starts sounding like a violation of free speech.
“In a broad sense, I don’t favor restricting the flow of information,” he said. “I’m in the camp of ‘the best cure for bad speech is more speech.’ I’m more in favor of letting people be exposed to whatever’s out there, and then also providing the ability to avail themselves of additional information that counters it. I’m not in favor of protecting people by limiting their access to information.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.