In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

What was fake


Nearing the end of 2015, Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post announced it would be the final column [1] of the series ‘What was fake on the internet this week’. The series was launched in May 2014, highlighting “urban legends and Internet pranks”, such as “new flavors of Oreos and babies with absurd names”.

Ms Dewey wrote the “pace and tenor of fake news has changed”:

Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research, it’s now often as simple as clicking around for an “about” or “disclaimer” page. And where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

Profitability and Partisanship

Ms Dewey then points to two broader trends that have changed the Internet’s new fairytales: the profitability of fake news and satire websites, and partisan blogs seeking to exploit their readers’ fears.

As an example of the first trend, bfnn [2] and the Daily Mash have reasonably polished presentations.

The first trend has a disturbing consequence, where fake news stories pass through the membrane of journalistic institutions. The Suffolk Gazette — which states at the bottom of the page that it is “without question Britain’s best spoof and satire news site” — published an article about the “plucky pensioner” who got stuck in a public toilet for four days and knitted a scarf [3]. Despite that absurd premise, Oli Smith of the Daily Express rewrote that article as if it were real news [4]. Now, a parody article has entered an actual news website.


Did no-one question this? (Source: Daily Express)

For the second trend, Ms Dewey highlights claims that American Muslims were rallying for ISIS, or that Syrians have invaded New Orleans.

“Conservatism rather than gullibility”

The question arises as to why such clear falsities could spread so quickly and so easily. Walter Quattrociocchi and his fellow researchers [5] found that, when considering conspiratorial pages on Facebook, users who read about conspiracies rarely also consumed scientific or debunking posts. Moreover:

Users tend to aggregate in communities of interests which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, polarisation, and partisan debates. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by false rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.

The authors concluded:

Current debunking campaigns as well as algorithmic solutions do not seem to be the best options. Our findings suggest that the main problem behind misinformation is conservatism rather than gullibility. When users are faced in online discussion with untrusted opponents the discussion results in a major commitment with respect to their own echo chamber.

Whilst series such as ‘What was fake’ have proven a valuable resource, eclipsing falsehoods with truth may be more difficult than even nineteen months ago.


[1] Dewey, C., 2015. What was fake on the internet this week: Why this is the final column. Washington Post. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[2] bfnn, 2016. Home. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[3] Suffolk Gazette, 2015. Pensioner locked in loo for four day, knits scarf. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[4] Smith, O., 2015. Granny gets locked in council toilet for FOUR DAYS – but gets through it by KNITTING. Daily Express. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]

[5] Quattrociocchi, W., et al, 2015. Debunking in a World of Tribes. arXiv. Available from: [Accessed: 3rd January 2016]



This entry was posted on January 5, 2016 by in American Politics and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: