It may seem clichéd to say I love reading The Onion, the satirical news website with headlines like “Wall Street Executive Telling Friend How Amazing It Is To See Clinton Live,” but alas it’s true. The hilarious website StuffWhitePeopleLike.com listed The Onion as No. 109 on its list of 136 items, alongside other classics such as “self-aware hip hop references,” “frisbee sports” and “taking a year off.” Consider me guilty.
It’s a running joke that most writers, especially those in the younger demographic, wish they could write for The Onion. Who wouldn’t love penning stories like “Confused Audience Member at Town Hall Debate Asking About City’s New Stoplights.”
What makes a fake news site like The Onion so great is that its stories are easily identifiable as satire and many are laugh-out-loud funny. Satire can be a useful tool to point out the absurd or express a feeling about a topic that can otherwise be difficult to articulate.
Often, the everyday news cycle can be a bit depressing. Sometimes we just need to laugh at stories like this: “NSA: ‘Can Somebody Good At Computers Help Us?’ ”
While a site like The Onion serves a purpose, the growing trend of fake news sites that can be easily promoted through social media is cause for alarm. A presidential candidate who consistently screams for people to distrust the media (it’s a lot easier to do that than explain factual stories that present him in a negative light) only adds fuel to the fire. Sure, disregard an investigative piece by The New York Times because it’s the “crooked media,” but please share on Facebook the next clickbait headline from theuspatriot.com or americannews.com.
Fake news falls into three general categories: satire sites like The Onion, sites that post utterly made-up stories masquerading as real news and, most troubling, sites that take real news items and twist the facts to reach an inaccurate conclusion.
The Washington Post ran a story last week detailing how fake news stories continually trend on Facebook. The paper logged every trending story during workdays from Aug. 31 to Sept. 22. The article points out how Facebook scaled back human editors in favor of algorithms that have been far from perfect at separating reality from make-believe. Google announced last Thursday that it will note fact-checks in search results through Google News, an important step in the right direction.
Of course, trending or not, most people will encounter their fair share of bizarre, over-the-top stories in their Facebook news feed based on friends’ shares. Consider this headline from Conservative Tribune: “BREAKING: Massive ISIS Sponsor Gave Bill Clinton Staggering Birthday Gift.” (These types of stories love words in ALL CAPITALS coupled with colorful adjectives.) The basis of the article is an email released through WikiLeaks. It references a 2012 conversation between a Clinton Foundation director of foreign policy and an ambassador from Qatar, the small Middle East nation located on a peninsula near Saudi Arabia. To call Qatar, which is home to a U.S. military base, a “massive ISIS sponsor” appears largely exaggerated. And there’s never a mention of whether Mr. Clinton actually accepted the “staggering birthday gift.” Then again, most people won’t even read past the headline.
A recent story on the website 100PercentFedUp.com begins with this line: “Hillary’s campaign has been working in coordination with the mainstream media for months to hide Donald J. Trump’s popularity with the “everyday Americans.’ ” It goes on to inform readers that “nearly 100,000 Pennsylvania Democrats have switched to Republican since the beginning of the year.” Don’t expect an attribution for that information on the post. Further research on reputable news sites reveals that while the number of registered Democrats has indeed declined and the GOP has gained in the state, Democrats still maintain a “nearly one-million-voter edge over Republicans,” according to philly.com. That doesn’t seem to add up the outlandish headline “#TREXIT: SWING STATE APOCALYPSE” on 100PercentFedUp, which was shared on Facebook more than 3,000 times.
So what has happened? Are people unable to distinguish reputable news sources from bogus ones? Do people simply want to read what they want to hear to further solidify their viewpoint? Do people not care what’s truthful?
I don’t have the answers, but I do know it’s more important than ever for dedicated journalists to continue doing their work amid the growing cloud of misinformation that permeates the web.
In the meantime, I’m off to read The Onion.
The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or firstname.lastname@example.org.