Digital Culture Critic Abandons 'Fake On The Internet' Column
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For 82 weeks, Caitlin Dewey wrote a column for The Washington Post called "What Was Fake On The Internet This Week?" Now she's decided that format doesn't work anymore, and she's here to explain why. Welcome to the show.
CAITLIN DEWEY: Hi, Ari. How are you?
SHAPIRO: I'm good. So how has the Internet changed since you started this column in May of 2014?
DEWEY: Well, it seems to me like it's changed in two main ways. The first is that there's been sort of this industrialization of the hoax news industry, meaning that a lot of news sites now exist that do nothing but publish fake news for the traffic and the ad revenue.
SHAPIRO: So people are just making money off fake news and hoaxes.
DEWEY: Exactly. There's been just, like, a proliferation of that sort of site that didn't really exist when I started the column. The other thing that's happened - in some ways, sort of more troubling - is that where fake news just used to be sort of ridiculous or sensational, anything to make people click, it now tends to have more of a partisan edge to it. It seems aimed to exploit peoples' biases or prejudices or pre-existing views. And we're finding that that's something that's a little harder to combat in the format of a weekly column.
SHAPIRO: Are you saying that if you debunk something that confirms peoples' prejudices, they're more likely to believe the fake thing that confirms their prejudices than they are the column debunking it?
DEWEY: Absolutely. In fact, I'm not the only one who's found that. There's actually been a great deal of research to that effect, too. So, like, within these very siloed communities, they tend to believe in a conspiracy or in misinformation more when it is debunked than they did before, so it's troubling. It's difficult for us to figure out sort of how to address those issues.
SHAPIRO: Can you give me a recent example of perhaps something that you debunked in a column that had traction anyway because it confirmed what people wanted to believe?
DEWEY: Yeah, absolutely. There was one just last week. A Facebook user showed a photo of a protest at an Islamic education center in Dearborn, Mich., and he claimed that it was a photo of a pro-ISIS protest. In fact, it was from a peace rally that that Islamic center holds every year, and even though we were able to very clearly document that that's what it was, that it happened every year, that it had been covered in local paper and things like that, that photo still continued to spread on Facebook with this misinformation that it was a pro-ISIS rally. And you know, when you have such clear news coverage and documentation that that's not what it is, I mean, it's hard to say how the rumor circulates anyway.
SHAPIRO: If journalists like you just give up on trying to demonstrate that these stories are false, haven't we really lost something valuable as a society?
DEWEY: Absolutely but rest assured we are not giving up. We are stopping the weekly column because it just seems to be ineffective and ill-suited to the current Internet landscape. But we are definitely looking at different, more creative and more aggressive ways to deal with the spiral of misinformation, and hopefully we'll come up with something new soon.
SHAPIRO: But it doesn't sound like you're super optimistic about getting that spiral under control.
DEWEY: No, I'm definitely not optimistic, but I mean, obviously one of the core functions of journalism is to correct misinformation. So regardless of what the atmosphere is like online, I think we have to continue persevering and hopefully innovating ways to stop the spiral even if it does seem sort of futile.
SHAPIRO: Caitlin Dewey is the digital culture critic at The Washington Post, and until last week, she was the author of "What Was Fake On The Internet This Week?" Thanks for joining us.
DEWEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.