Fake news is not new; anti-vaccine advocates were among its pioneers

47309828 - child vaccination, baby injection, anti vaccine background

The mainstream media has suddenly discovered fake news.

According to PBS:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The mainstream media served for a decade as purveyors of fake news on vaccines and children have died as a result. [/pullquote]

A new analysis by BuzzFeed found that false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated more engagement than content from real news sites during the last three months of the election. Users shared false stories like this one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS hundreds of thousands of times, even more than real stories.

The power of fake news comes from the willingness of partisans to believe it and share it without ever checking to see if it is true.

Social media companies like Facebook are shocked, shocked to find that they have been used as conduits for fake news … as if their business model isn’t built on making millions by monetizing it. Journalists are shocked, shocked that an election could have been won or lost based on such dirty tricks and are bitingly dismissive of the uninformed, gullible multitudes who fell for it … as if those in the media are far above such ignorance and credulousness.

But fake news is not new, and the mainstream media are not above such fatuousness. For years, social media and mainstream media have been the primary conduits for the spread of fake news about vaccines. True, anti-vax “news” does not originate in the mainstream media, but then fake news about politics doesn’t generally originate in the mainstream media, either. The birthplace of fake news about vaccines, like fake news about politics, is the internet and its acceptance and believability is nurtured on social media sites first. But ultimately the mainstream media served for a decade as purveyors of fake news on vaccines and children have died as a result. But they didn’t call it fake news; they called it “balance.”

The Washington Post interviewed a leading creator and purveyor of fake political news in order to understand how and why it works. It is startling how closely the political fake news industry hews to the tactics of the anti-vax fake news industry.

Paul Horner is not a political partisan; he creates fake news because it is extraordinarily lucrative to monetize it.

How lucrative?

I make most of my money from AdSense — like, you wouldn’t believe how much money I make from it. Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across an anti-vax “news” site that isn’t chock-a-block with Adsense ads that provide tremendous revenue for the website owners.

I have Adsense in the sidebar of this blog, so I know how it works. I only run one ad on a page and many the visitors to my site are “hate readers” who would never knowingly contribute to my ad revenue by clicking on the ads. Hence my income from ads is paltry. Moreover, I actually have to spend time crafting real articles for people to read. The ad revenue doesn’t come close to paying for maintaining the site, let alone writing for it. But anti-vax websites, like fake news websites, are filled with multiple ads on each page, ads within the articles themselves, and even ads within comment sections.

Adsense has decency standards for whether they will put ads on your site, just like Facebook has decency standards for what they will allow on their pages. But truthfulness is not one of their standards so you (and they!) can make more money and get more attention for click-bait then you ever could for real news.

And the best part is readers don’t care whether content is true.

As Horner explains:

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Horner hasn’t seen anything like it, but I have. It’s how anti-vax sites work, too. Anti-vaxxers are remarkably dumb and gullible. They just keep passing stuff around; nobody fact checks anything. Anti-vaxxers say whatever they want, with absolutely no regard for the truth, and people believe it. Even when things anti-vax websites say turn out to be obviously untrue, anti-vaxxers don’t mind and cheerfully accept it any way.

In other words, when an anti-vaxxers tells you she’s “done her research” and she has “educated” herself, what she means is that she’s read fake news sites, never fact checked it and believes it because she wants to believe it. She imagines that she’s sophisticated when she’s merely the victim of a not particularly sophisticated con. The anti-vaxxers who believes that vaccines cause autism is no different than the hard Right partisan who believes Obama is Kenyan. She’s a fool.

Journalists drip with derision for the “Obama is a Kenyan” fools, but for many years they gullibly served as purveyors of anti-vaccine nonsense under the guise of journalistic “balance.” Most science journalists are not scientists and they lack the basic understanding required to tell the difference between fake science news and real science news. For years they carefully included the anti-vaccine “perspective” in pieces on vaccines and fanned the flames of anti-vaccine autism hysteria. They never bothered to fact check anti-vax “news”; indeed they didn’t care if it was true or not. They profited by selling the “controversy.”

The truth is that fake news is as big a problem in science as it is in politics. And whereas mainstream media outlets in general will not transmit fake political news unwittingly, they cheerfully transmit fake science news all the time. They shouldn’t be looking down on Facebook and Google for profiting from fake political news, when they are equally guilty of cheerfully profiting from fake science news. It’s inevitable whenever a business puts profits before principles.