Editor's note: This is an issue that we here at The Contributor have fell victim to a handful of times in 2015, being too casual on Facebook in the name of humour. We ask that our readers continue to keep us on our toes, and make an effort to vet their posts. Funny is fun, but there are some serious issues that are ill served by misinformation.
Online advertising is big business and sites that depend on it are getting really “creative” in using social media to drive traffic to their pages. If they can dangle some fluff piece with a lurid headline and make you click on it (or better, share it!), then the site can raise ad rates and generate more income. But what happens if not enough people share your content? A whole family of “satire news” sites is hiring paid trolls to drop links on every Facebook page and group they can find.
Satire trolls have pretty predictable behavior. They regularly share links from satire sites like “newslo,” “religionlo,” and “politicalo” without identifying them as satire – and keep doing even after being reprimanded. Unless you look at the URL of the link, it’s hard to tell by the headline, so the goal is to generate clicks and boost ad revenue.
That’s Capitalism in action, right? But there is a side effect to this kind of activity, and everyone who gets political news from social media needs to be alert to it.
As shocking as it may seem, a lot of people don’t exercise due diligence before sharing content. They rely on the headline or the first paragraph or two and then share it along with some outraged commentary: “can you believe this?” or “this guy is an idiot!” Their friends see it, trust the source, and share it – also without fact-checking.
Before you know it, “everybody” in your social network is sharing a meme and is absolutely sure that Sarah Palin went on talk radio and said we should turn the EPA’s job over to the Forestry Department because “trees are responsible for more pollution than automobiles.”
Sure, it sounds like something she would say, but she didn’t. However, it has the ring of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness: “The part of seeming or being felt to be true, but not actually true.” And, by the way, the accuser of those dangerous trees? That was Ronald Reagan.
The problem with sharing funny stuff that seems true – but isn’t?
This isn’t an indictment of all satire sites. The Onion is one of the best-known and most widely shared. But it’s clear about being satire – even if some international news outlets don’t get the joke. There are others however, that exist solely as clickbait. FakeNewsWatch.com lists some of the offenders, but it leaves off these newer sites (that we are not providing links to!):
Administrators of Facebook political groups need to watch out of satire trolls from these and similar sites. Here are a few warning signs:
The biggest clue is their behavior on your group page. Someone legitimately interested in your topic or candidate will post a link and then stay around and discuss it with the community. They’ll comment on other people’s posts too. However, the satire trolls don’t have the time for that. They drop a link and run to the next site.
Even though it can be time-consuming and a bit of a pain, I recommend that group administrators moderate requests to join. It’s particularly important if you allow anyone to post content to your page. Moderating requests will probably take much less time than you think and will make your page a more valuable resource for the legitimate group members. People can get the information they want without having to wade through a lot of clickbait scam stuff.
I follow a number of politically-oriented Facebook groups, and what was once a minor annoyance with the fake news sites has become a major problem. We can stop it if we just take a minute or two and verify the site before hitting that share button.