Culture

Report on Scourge of Fake News Turns Out to Be Faked

(Dreamstime image: Liljam)
Buzzfeed is coming under fire for the methodology of its Facebook exposé.

The presidential election proved to be fertile ground for the growth of fake news stories. As people became annoyed by tall tales such as “Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump for President” popping up in their Facebook feeds, the mainstream media decided it was time to fight back. As calls for action from Facebook grew louder, Buzzfeed released a bombshell report: Fake news outperformed real news on Facebook in the final months of the election. This was then widely taken as fact, but it turned out to be, well, untrue.

As Tim Carney reports at the Washington Examiner, Buzzfeed’s research methodology was a mess:

The BuzzFeed study looked only at the top 20 election stories, in terms of engagement, by fake websites and compared it to the top 20 election stories from a tiny list of mainstream sites. The list included left-leaning opinion-heavy outlets like Huffington Post and Vox. . . . 

So the “Real News” numbers are from an incomplete, odd, and unexplained subsample of the media.

Buzzfeed narrowly defined “real news” to exclude widely read sources such as Yahoo News, Reuters, the Daily Mail, Associated Press, and all newspapers outside New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. This skewed sample undermines Buzzfeed’s claim that fake news “outperformed” real news on Facebook, since it hides the total amount of traffic that real news sources received, furthering the idea that mass exposure to false stories led to Donald Trump’s election.

Since Buzzfeed published the story, its author Craig Silverman has acknowledged that the data are not perfect, and he stated on Twitter that no one should conclude fake news won the election for Trump. But he stands by the conclusion that fake news saw “bigger engagement” than real news during the campaign. This narrow definition of “engagement” is misleading, to say the least.

No one should dismiss the spread of fake news, which is a very real problem. But the media have their own problems to confront at the moment. Despite an all-out blitz of pro–Hillary Clinton coverage, Donald Trump won the presidential election and exposed the elite media’s ignorance of vast swathes of the country. Yet the response of many journalists has been to double-down on denouncing the “deplorables” and peddle crackpot theories about how Clinton was unfairly undermined.

As Erick Erickson pointed out, the mainstream media have an ugly history of peddling fake news that suits their own agenda:

I could spend days documenting all the crap, lies, and outright errors pushed on Vox, but the Left would not believe it. A Vox writer, you will recall, actually wrote about a bridge between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which does not exist. And that Vox writer has now been hired by the New York Times, a newspaper that to this day has never apologized for misreporting on then President George H. W. Bush’s experience with a supermarket scanner. The reporter in question was not even present, and that reporter got promoted to the senior ranks of the paper.

Ben Smith at Columbia Journalism Review accidentally illustrated the problem when he took the erroneous Buzzfeed study as fact in a piece that, ironically enough, touted reporters’ ability to sniff out falsehood. “The everyday reporting truths — who said what, when did they say it, what does the document say, where did the money go — are the sorts of thing we’re good at pinning down,” he claimed. Journalists, it turns out, reveal their biases by what “everyday truths” they choose to believe.

Fake news has been with us since Benjamin Franklin was printing up stories in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and Mark Zuckerberg won’t end it now. It may indeed be reasonable for Facebook to restrict Macedonian sites that peddle falsifiable stories, but reporting will still be full of convenient falsehoods that serve certain agendas. Will liberals call on Facebook to punish Buzzfeed for its misleading statistics about Trump-related news? Don’t hold your breath.

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