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Fake news makes really good money

Over 20% of posts on US politics pages make up stories to attract eyeballs and advertisers


After Mr Donald Trump's surprise election as the next US president, many have been looking at who to point fingers at. Social media platforms have become the latest target.

Fake news and the way it spreads like wildfire online played a major role in the way things turned out, critics now claim.

Even as campaigning ended, US President Barack Obama said at a Michigan rally last Monday that "crazy conspiracy theorising" was running rampant online. "And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it's on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it's on social media, people start believing it," he said. "And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense."

A recent report by Buzzfeed found that almost two out of five posts from right-wing politics pages carried "false or misleading information". Left-wing Facebook pages fared only slightly better, with 20 per cent of posts containing fake news.

In a follow-up investigation, the media outlet also found the source of some of these stories. For instance, more than 100 pro-Trump websites were being run from a single town in Macedonia. Some of the sites have names such as USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co and WorldPoliticus.com.

The death of influential Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen struck a chord around the world. This quote attributed to Mr Trump is still being widely circulated despite being debunked time and time again. A 17-year-old told B
This quote attributed to Mr Trump is still being widely circulated despite being debunked time and time again. A 17-year-old told Buzzfeed that faking news was an “easy way to make money” and that articles on Mr Trump did the best. PHOTO: GOOGLE NEWS

The death of influential Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen struck a chord around the world. PHOTO: LEONARD COHEN/FACEBOOK


    LEONARD COHEN: The death of the influential Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist struck a chord around the world. Said comedian Lewis Black: "A timely exit by the brilliant Leonard Cohen, one can only take so much sadness. He made melancholy nearly seem joyous. He will be missed."

    11:11: Singles' Day is China's answer to Black Friday. About 20 hours into the event, Alibaba said sales had reached 103 billion yuan (S$21.3 billion), easily surpassing its previous record set last year. Over 80 per cent of purchases were made on smartphones, the company said.

    #BLACKOUT: Social media users have opted to turn their profiles black as a visual protest against US President-elect Donald Trump. Said one Twitter user: "The #blackout movement is a movement of solidarity, a way for users to show that they don't stand for the spread of the hatefulness Trump embodies and encourages."

The goal of these sites is to generate traffic and in turn earn revenue through online advertisements.

Their articles, such as one on how Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will face an indictment next year for her e-mail transgressions, are sensationalist and extremely shareable among a certain base.

This supposed 1998 Trump quote - "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they'd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific" - is also still being widely circulated despite being debunked time and time again.

A 17-year-old who ran one of the sites told Buzzfeed that faking news was an "easy way to make money". He had experimented with left-leaning content but articles on Mr Trump performed the best.

The Washington Post also carried out its own investigations and found other examples of fake news, such as how Mrs Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta was apparently into occult rituals.

Or how an FBI agent who investigated Mrs Clinton died under mysterious circumstances, and the Pope forbidding Catholics from voting for Mrs Clinton.

Tech observer Erin Pettigrew, who used to head Gawker media's strategy team, said Mr Trump had generated more traction on Facebook than his Democratic rival. There were more social media conversations about Mr Trump as opposed to Mrs Clinton in every single US state, particularly those which polled Republican on election night itself.

"It was the somewhat unseen surge of a strong popular movement," she said.

But Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has rejected the idea that bogus stories on Facebook helped pave a path of victory for Mr Trump, calling it "a pretty crazy idea".

But he admitted that some Facebook users might live in filter bubbles where they see only news and perspectives similar to their own. Facebook has found that its users are less inclined to click on links that don't line up with their views, even if such links pop up on their feed.

"We just tune out," he said. "I don't know what to do about that."


Mr Obama has frequently been called the first "social media president" for his extensive use of various platforms.

Ever wondered what would happen to the 11.7 million followers of his Twitter account (@POTUS) when he leaves office?

It turns out the White House has already established the process of transition for the next president. Mr Trump has a larger following (14.5 million) on his personal Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump). While he will retain the followers on the Potus account, he will take over the handle with no tweets on the timeline. The same procedure applies to the White House's official Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Meanwhile, every message Mr Obama sent on the official accounts will be placed in the US national archives, just like other presidential records.


Online streaming is big business in China. At any given time, up to 325 million users could be watching or broadcasting on any one of more than 300 online live streaming sites or apps that operate there.

China Daily reported that the country had about 710 million Internet users as of June this year, and the number of people using live-broadcast sites looks set to climb. Some go online to interact with their audience for monetary rewards while others use the platforms to educate, teaching English-language classes to anyone who has the patience to sit through the stream.

More are also using it as a springboard for political discussion, according to several news reports. It seems to have got the government worried, so much so that starting from Dec 1, service providers have been tasked with censoring content before letting it go live, and also establishing a system that would allow operators to block "improper" live streams immediately.

Those who break the rules would find themselves blacklisted by service providers and prohibited from registering their sites again, a potentially devastating blow for a tech company.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Toronto have uncovered hidden keywords which have been used to censor chats on three popular live streaming apps - YY, 9158 and Sina Show.

A senior researcher from the university said these apps come with built-in blacklists. "If you use any of these keywords, your chat message is censored," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Fake news makes really good money'. Print Edition | Subscribe