Sunday, November 20, 2016

The clickbait election.

Remember last week, when I said I was going to skip that post about politics? Well, it's been another week, and things haven't gotten any better. And it's not really about politics, anyway, but about politics on social media, and how we've come to be where we are right now.

A whole bunch of Obama-Biden memes like this one have been popping up lately. I trust there have been just as many in favor of President-elect Trump, although I haven't seen many because I'm a progressive (sorry if that's a spoiler) and so Facebook doesn't show me too many things I don't already agree with.

That's part of the problem. Facebook makes money by drawing eyeballs to flashy content, figuring out who's attracted to each type of flashy content, and then marketing products to users based on that information. Not too long ago, I filled out a form for a Facebook ad for my books (sorry in advance...). You know all that identifying information that privacy advocates are always haranguing us to limit Facebook's access to? Those are the parameters, pretty much exactly, that Facebook presented to me so I could tailor my ad to people who would be most likely to buy my books.

In addition, once Facebook figures out what you like, its algorithms will dump more of the same into your newsfeed. So a liberal won't see much in the way of opposing viewpoints unless, say, a conservative friend or relative posts in response to a liberal post. Because we tend to live in an echo chamber on social media, these posts from the other side can seem to come out of left field. "Do people really believe that stuff?" we wonder. Well, yeah, they do. We just never see it, because Facebook algorithms.

Here's another wrinkle: there are people whose business model is solely to post links to attractive and/or outrageous stuff on social media, because they get paid every time someone clicks through. You've probably heard the term clickbait. That's the sort of stuff I'm talking about. How lucrative is it? The Washington Post published an interview this past week with a guy who runs a whole host of clickbait "news" sites. He makes $10,000 a month, just from Google ads. It's not exactly chump change. And he doesn't have anything complimentary to say about Trump's supporters. "I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it," he said. "I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff -- like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line -- and people went along with it!" He's actually worried that Trump won the election because of fake stories he wrote and disseminated on social media -- although he's not worried enough about America to stop doing it, because $$$$.

Facebook and Twitter have both announced crackdowns on these purveyors of fake news, although I haven't seen any evidence that they've begun. One thing they could do is label each post from a purported news site as either real or fake. That shouldn't be too difficult; a team of college kids figured out one method during a recent contest, and it only took them 36 hours.

In the meantime, it's up to each of us to evaluate the links we see before we share them. You can click through the following link to find an evolving list of fake or slanted news sites. You can also check Snopes.com to see whether something is true, and check the original publication date to make sure you're not recycling an old story. Here's a handy reminder for all of this advice -- and yes, I found the meme on Facebook.

Go forth and post responsibly, everyone.

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A quick NaNoWriMo update: As of tonight, I'm at 33,500 words or so -- right where I need to be in order to finish NaNo on the 30th. I think I'm just about where I need to be in terms of the plot, too. Typically, I begin writing faster once I get between 35,000 and 40,000 words, which means I may get on a roll and finish over Thanksgiving weekend. I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

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These moments of sensible, fact-checked blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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