Sarah Palin calls to send illegal immigrants “back across the ocean” to Mexico. Metallica’s James Hetfield completes a Ph.D in astrophysics. Jeff Goldblum is dead (again). For years, these kinds of stories—compelling, rich, completely full of shit—have flooded the Facebook timelines of your most tolerated cousins and high-school acquaintances who never left your hometown, creating widespread confusion and the compulsion to fill their comments with a litany of “Actually…” They’re hoaxes, the work of satirical websites who—unlike esteemed, internationally respected, paycheck-writing practitioners such as The Onion—ply “satire” that involves simply making up things that seem just plausible enough, transforming the viral outrage of the idle gullible into easy clicks. And now Facebook, along with fellow ignorance incubator Twitter, are making efforts to kill them, the same way Trump killed that Muslim child at a Florida rally.
Reuters reports that Facebook and Twitter have joined the First Draft Coalition, formed last year by Google Inc., to develop a comprehensive plan to quash fake news and improve the overall quality of information across their sites, which are both go-to sources for being wrong about things. While the initial members of the group already included media organizations like The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and BuzzFeed News, bringing in the two social media giants is seen as a significant step, considering how often Facebook and Twitter’s billions of users turn to them for the news, then give it about as much critical thought as anything else they see on there.
Facebook, in particular, has repeatedly come under fire for spreading misinformation since it chose to get rid of the editors who once curated its “trending” section, after those weak, fallible flesh-bags were accused of suppressing conservative news articles and occasionally requiring food. Like we all soon shall be, it replaced them with algorithms that—when they’re not deducing that you’re into juggling and watercraft—apply that same precision to determining the biggest stories of the day. Unfortunately, those sophisticated algorithms are not always familiar with what we humans call “hoo-mor”—even the kind practiced by non-satirical satire sites.
Thus, twice within the last month, Facebook has given prominent placement to stories like Megyn Kelly being fired from Fox News for being a “traitor” to Republicans, and 9/11 footage that “proves bombs were planted in the Twin Towers.” Chances are you might have seen these and chuckled uproariously, “That’s somewhat believable!” But for Facebook, it was another embarrassing mark for a company that’s become the primary source of news for adults in their 20s and 30s, even as it continually tries to tell them not to do that.
Of course, it’s not just Facebook who’s fallen prey to fake stories: As The New Republic railed against last year, these sorts of hoaxes have long been bought and disseminated across not only other sites full of people you don’t want to talk to, like Breitbart and The Drudge Report, but actual, venerable newspapers like The Boston Globe. Daniel Barkley, founder of The Daily Currant—like a modern-day Mark Twain of just saying inaccurate stuff—once defended the proliferation of his site’s joke-free jokes to Slate in 2013 by saying, “That’s the kind of comedy I like—it’s made to look real. It’s funnier that way, and we think it’s more intelligent that way.” Elsewhere, he responded to a Politico piece bluntly titled “The Daily Currant Isn’t Funny” by protesting—distinct from more traditionally satirical satire sites like The Onion—his writers practice a humor that is “character-driven and found in the narrative structure of our stories,” and blamed the subtleties and “deeper message” of stories like “Poll Shows Trump Leading By 70 Points Among Mentally Retarded” for the confusion.
Granted, comedy is subjective; some people like it to have actual comedic elements, while others are intelligent. But as Slate’s David Weigel pointed out—and any glance at your feed will show you—sites like The Daily Currant, National Report, American News, et al flourish because they prey on the confirmation biases of people already anxious to believe that Sarah Palin and Donald Trump did something asinine, and who somehow aren’t satisfied with the wealth of material from legitimate news sources. And while the First Draft Coalition probably can’t hope to stop entirely the spread of those fake stories—or in Twitter’s case, its users’ often-unreliable “eyewitness” reporting—it’s looking to tamp them down by trying to “create a voluntary code of practice, promote news literacy among social media users, and launch a platform where members can verify questionable news stories,” and replacing our own, increasingly obsolete brains.
That platform is set to begin rolling out in October, with the aim of at least mildly reducing the amount of easy outrage-bait in time for the election, and leaving only the kind that’s based in overblown conjecture or wild speculation. You know: The traditional, Old New Media way.