Hyper-partisan sites, fake news, and the media: A fight for Facebook's audience

Bill Goodykoontz
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix on Oct. 29, 2016.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States promises tumultuous times ahead for politics as we know it, government as we use it and media and journalism as we practice them.

It’s not hard to see how we got where we are today: rampant claims of liberal bias, a failure to treat Trump as a serious candidate, an early insistence on false equivalency, and then an outcome that took almost everyone in the media by surprise.

Throw in the onslaught of citizen journalism, hyper-partisan news sites and a social media environment that makes it easy to see, share and follow only that which re-affirms your own world-view, and it’s an ugly picture for the Fourth Estate indeed.

“We exist because of the frustration that many people in America feel about the mainstream media,” said Patrick Brown, CEO of Liftable Media Inc., a Phoenix-based company that publishes sites such as the Conservative Tribune and Western Journalism.

Brown, whose stories are shared frequently on Facebook by his conservative followers, added, “…we’re a direct result of what the mainstream media has done in denigrating a significant portion of the American public.”

Most mainstream media types that I know and work with would disagree with Brown.

But the truth is millions of Americans do not.

Increasingly, it seems, people don't trust information found in the New York Times, the Washington Post or other traditional media outlets, no matter how thoroughly reported, carefully written and aggressively fact-checked.

But anything posted to a half-baked website with “Freedom” or “Patriot” in the title? That's gospel.

It seems as if readers more and more are ready to believe the “news” they want to believe, no matter if it’s accurate or even legitimate.

And they’re doing so in droves.

According to Quantcast, which specializes in audience measurement and real-time advertising, 19 million people visited Conservative Tribune in October, averaging about three visits per person.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms give everyone with a smartphone and a pair of thumbs the ability to say whatever they please.

Everyone can weigh in on everything.

That ability has combined with a general distrust of media and a partisan streak so deep and so divisive that the most innocuous statement becomes fodder for a fight. It's resulted in a truly unique, and dangerous, environment.

“This is a disgraceful aspect of social media, and it gets worse every year,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “I constantly come across people who have been almost brainwashed by what they’ve seen on the Internet.

“They seem to believe it all, but let’s remember they are filtering everything through their ideological and partisan filters. So they believe this junk because it comports with their personal prejudices.”

The rise of hyper-partisan - and fake - news

When and how did these hyperpartisan sites come into being? What is the media do about them? And how much influence did they have on the election?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked that very question on Thursday, but dismissed the idea during the Techonomy conference in California.

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said.

It’s not surprising that Zuckerberg is being thrown these types of questions. Facebook has often faced criticism of its alogrithms and what, if anything, it is doing to stem the flow of mis-information on its site.

In August, after complaints of liberal bias, the company laid off editors and announced that its “Trending” topics section would be curated only by its algorithm.

But the move has done nothing to staunch the cascade of hyper-partisan and outright “fake” news site shares.

That’s because Facebook’s problem isn’t just its trending-topics area. It’s also friends sharing false stories with friends – even candidates sharing stories with their followers. Prominent examples of purely "fake" news stories that made the rounds on social media (most notably Facebook and Twitter) include a piece claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump, or more recently, that thousands of people had cast write-in votes for Harambe, a dead gorilla, thereby costing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton the election.

Once the story is out there, there's almost nothing the average person can do, short of Facebook or Twitter removing it, to keep people from passing it along. Both social-media giants in September signed on to the First Draft Partner Network, a collaboration with 30 news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Buzzfeed. The network aims to "share best practices on how to verify true news stories and stop the spread of fake ones," according to an article from the Neiman Journalism Lab.

Solutions can't come soon enough.

A May Pew Research Center study found that the majority of U.S. adults – a full 62 percent – get their news in some way, shape, or form, on social media.

Of the various platforms, Facebook leads the way. The study found that of the 67 percent of U.S. adults who use the site, 44 percent get their news from its curated feeds.

And this poses a huge problem for the mainstream media going forward.

Beth Obermeyer, a photographer and ordained minister who lives in Goodyear, said the election caused her to trust traditional media less.

For instance, she was dismayed that the The Arizona Republic and other papers endorsed Clinton.

“It stung,” she said. “It did feel alienating, a lot of news media sources feeling like it was a constant negative barrage against the candidate that the Republicans put up, maybe ignoring some of the legitimate feelings of people.”

Obermeyer checks Facebook several times a day, she said, but doesn’t believe everything she sees there.

“I think 90 percent of the legit news that I will honestly believe is linked through Matt Drudge’s website, where I hope most conservatives with brains would go for news that I feel is trustworthy. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of trustworthy news outlets around anymore.”

She, too, sees the hyperpartisan sites, but realizes that more than journalism might be in play.

“People don’t always stop and think when their emotions are heightened,” she said. “I think that people do take advantage of the high emotions for sure. Sometimes the stories are so ridiculous and out there I will absolutely wait 48 or 72 hours before I buy in to what’s been printed online.”

Not everyone is so discerning.

Echo chambers and social media

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

The fact remains that echo chambers exist and social media is fueling them.

The right was the first to discover this and exploit it — Rush Limbaugh became a radio king in the 1990s by telling ultra-conservative listeners exactly what they wanted to hear about then-president Bill Clinton.

Sean Hannity is his most-obvious disciple, bringing a Trumped-up point-of-view to his Fox News show.

These audiences are one big choir dying to be preached to.

Clever — or diabolical, depending on your point of view — media-savvy people have seen the intelligence void and are rushing to fill it with whatever click-bait they can come up with.

“Because of social media, because of Facebook, because of originally the Internet but because of social media even more, there’s now other options,” Brown, the CEO of Liftable Media, said. “There’s a lot of potential out there.”

And to be clear, it’s not just right-leaning sites that are capitalizing on hyper-partisan echo-chambers.

Occupy Democrats, a left-leaning grassroots political organization with an active Facebook following, posted several pieces on its pages in recent days with headlines, chatter and memes that included: “The truth always comes out: Megyn Kelly just revealed Trump got FOX debate questions in advance, threatened her” and “This election was an IQ test… and America, you failed.”

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On the other side of the political spectrum, Brown on Friday published items with headlines that included “Breaking: President-Elect Trump makes major announcement on Presidential salary,” and “Breaking: The Clintons Aren’t Giving Up Yet…Shock Report.” Another story included Facebook chatter that read: “The mainstream media didn’t learn their lesson. They’re STILL trying to rig things for Hillary, even after the election.”

But Brown rejects the notion that his sites are partisan toward the Republican Party or that they take stories out of context, or blow them out of proportion.

“Our philosophy is we’re going to tell the truth, and we only want to tell the truth,” he said. “But we’re going to be telling stories that the mainstream media outlets, the old outlets, aren’t necessarily going to be talking about.

“So we provide a service to our readers, and we always want to be telling the truth.”

Can traditional media do better?

So, presumably, does the traditional, mainstream media. But if this election proves anything, there could be tough times ahead in terms of press access.

During the campaign, Trump talked about making it easier to sue the media and often decried news organizations as corrupt and crooked.

He struck a conciliatory tone during his post-election speech. But if you thought it would extend to the media…well, no such luck.

Trump kicked off his first transitional visit to the White House on Thursday by refusing to accommodate the traditional small pool of reporters who accompany the president-elect for the occasion. (A spokeswoman did say that Trump plans to have a traditional pool follow him when he’s president.)

But Trump and his bucking of traditional protocol is only a small part of the problem.

After all, it’s not just the candidates who didn’t trust the media. Neither do large chunks of the audience, particularly on the conservative side.

“Diminished trust in traditional media -- perceived as elitist and biased -- has pushed many of us toward social media, which, lacking editorial checks, are much more biased and much easier to manipulate,” said Filippo Menczer, the director for the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University Network Science Institute, and a leading authority on the subject. “It is a perfect storm.”

If Trump’s campaign were any indication, trying to predict what his administration will be like is folly.

Despite assurances that he will allow a traveling press pool, his treatment of legitimate media outlets during the election is reason for concern.

But this is also an opportunity for media, for good journalism no matter where it’s found.

Trump would seem to offer a uniquely rich opportunity for watchdog journalism, for investigative stories, for deeper looks into his policies and methods. What isn’t a given is whether the media will pursue those stories and, even if they do, whether anyone will read them.

Reach Goodykoontz at Facebook: Twitter: @goodyk.

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