How Going Viral Can Feed the Fake News Industrial Complex
Guest post by the founder of a defunct progressive news and commentary site. Site name and article title redacted at the author’s request. Images below are for illustrative purposes only.
In May 2015, I set up a personal political blog. I honestly can’t remember why, perhaps I was just bored, looking for something to do and had a spare twenty bucks to purchase hosting. It was anonymous and virtually unread. The pieces were long-winded and inarticulate, but I enjoyed writing them nonetheless as a self-challenging exercise which allowed me to critique my own political ideas once they were digitally published. It dealt with issues I was deeply engaged with at the time: the weakness of modern-day liberalism, the difference between economic and social progressivism, the lack of ideological framework within Irish political parties and the fundamentally unjust nature of the British electoral system, to name a few. While the view count was low and engagements sparse, I cherished each substantive discussion I had whenever I shared my posts to Twitter.
Funnily, I distinctly remember one person questioning an assumption I made surrounding the mindset with which FDR approached the New Deal and another stating that I was wrong regarding the moral justifications for the capitalist system. I relished that and it made it all worth-while.
Eventually, my blog moved into commentary on more contemporary issues. In line with my quirky, probably centre-left political views at the time I wrote an article which was generally supportive of then US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Attempting to keep up the substantive nature of my previous articles, I titled the piece: “[title redacted],” and in it went into detail on how Sanders’ policy ideals were more in-tune with those of the Democratic base than his rival’s, Hillary Clinton. After sharing to Reddit and Facebook, the piece went semi-viral. The response was astonishing. Within hours it had racked up thousands of views and hundreds of shares. In the comments I wasn’t being treated like a 15 year old searching for a political identity, but instead like an esteemed, astute observer offering valuable and noteworthy analysis. It was immediately clear to me that there was a very specific set of people reading and enjoying this piece, and they weren’t looking to challenge me, but instead wanted to praise my writing and share it with their friends. They were undeniably ideologically motivated and appeared to move in droves. Just as the article began to die down for an hour another 15 of them would comment and share it within 5 minutes. Seeing it all unfold was thrilling to say the least.
I quickly learned that I needed to write more about Sanders to get such a surge again, and so without hesitation produced a second, this time about his plan to offer tuition free college based on a Wall Street speculation tax. Like my first piece on Sanders, the tuition article soared to the top of Reddit and was shared far and wide by progressives through their Facebook groups and Twitter pages. I had become their voice in media, I was offering an objective representation of their candidate’s policy proposals and beliefs — unlike that nasty mainstream media, with their journalistic qualifications and degrees — and I was doing it in a way that appealed to their instinctual senses. Quite honestly, such attention gave me an unbelievable sense of accomplishment and power. Thus began a cycle of dramatic growth, as I would write a positive article about Sanders or a Sanders backed candidate, see a surge in followers and online praise, feel accomplished, then write the next Sanders article. It was my own personal form of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’
The blog’s articles began to be featured in reputable outlets such as the Huffington Post, my readers thanked me every day for being the political site they had never had and always wanted, and it was garnering attention from and being retweeted by people with real-world power and influence such as Michael Moore and Nina Turner, among many others. One day I even found myself with Green party Presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein on the other end of a Skype call discussing the future of progressivism in the United States. She concluded the interview by telling me young people with my enthusiasm were the future of the American left. In hindsight, I wonder if she knew that I was born and currently living in Ireland. At its peak, after 6 months of rapid growth, 200,000 people read the site monthly. It was at this point that I started to make money, not a serious amount but enough to allow me to do other things in conjunction with the blog. I started a political podcast featuring interviews with authors, intellectuals, congressional candidates and more.
Over time, although I was in full control of the situation, I realised that, going into the future, I couldn’t do it all alone. To keep up with audience demand for the latest Sanders piece and maintain my blog’s relevance, I needed help. I recruited an editor of a banking magazine, an American law student, an academic from the United Arab Emirates and an Irish college student. It appeared my plan to bring others on board to help cater for the demand had worked. Everything was going perfectly, growth was exponential. Praise continued to be heaped on me. But it all felt very wrong. Deep within me I sensed the artificiality of my pride surrounding the sites’ success, I felt perplexed and guilty as to how we had gotten as far as we did. The views and the clicks became a drug; watching your article soar up the rankings on Reddit and seeing the share-count tab rise was addicting, without doubt, and really appealed to my psychic make-up which is predisposed to gravitate towards such things. The feeling was indescribable, it was like a singular couple-month long high epitomised by a deep-routed surrealism. At some point I think I consciously decided that as much as I enjoyed discussing real issues and real ideas, it didn’t top this emotion. I remember one night, thinking: “I’m just a young kid from Ireland, and our other editors and contributors are nothing special either; why is this happening to us?”
The answer was simple; I had sold a bit of my soul, and it wasn’t by accident. I had taken some very deliberate steps to viral success. In order to give people what they wanted, I wasn’t writing columns or opinion pieces that matched my personal views but instead I was writing what I thought my rabidly radical fanbase wanted. I wasn’t popular because I was a talented writer, I was popular because I gave a highly mobilised, highly engaged online presence of progressivism exactly what they wanted, edited and censored to meet their acquired tastes. Good journalism succeeds in its capacity to influence others and portrays reality in such a way that the writer forces the reader to engage in deep, critical thought. My reality was the opposite. I, the “journalist,” was being influenced by the opinions and thoughts of others and what I felt they wanted to hear.
I knew this in the midst of all my new-found success and influence and money. Lying to myself and my readers by committing myself to ideas and people that I didn’t believe in was becoming unbearable. I decided as the Democratic primary was drawing to a close and it became clear Clinton would be the nominee that “[site name redacted]” needed a revamp. It needed to become something much more substance-based and less Bernie Sanders based. I utilised the contacts I had gathered, and within a couple days I had multiple professors of economics, history, and psychology on board as well as authors, radio hosts and students all willing to contribute and be a part of this new project. I began raising the money required and had a brand new website built with a slick, classy design. “[site name redacted]” was launched. Sure, the new site wouldn’t retain all the 200,000 monthly readers of the previous blog, now that every article wasn’t about Bernie Sanders or “Berniecrats” running for Congress, but I felt better thinking to myself that I could sleep well at night knowing I was contributing positively to the development of a constructive, centre-left narrative that would pave a better path forward for America and the world.
We wrote our articles excitedly, in nervous anticipation of the reaction to our new, objectively superior standard of journalism. But something had changed: nobody cared. Nobody read, nobody shared, nobody commented. Once our articles were reacting to the recent economic statistics and discussing the intricacies of environmental policies, readership figures collapsed. They collapsed to the point where continuing the project, compared to what it had once been, was now a pointless expenditure of energy that accomplished nothing. In a sense, I had come full circle. In the very beginning, I spent months writing about issues of substance and having virtually no-one listen. Then, in between, I resorted to writing the clickbait and false-hope the people of the internet demanded, and was rewarded for it. But, again, within a couple months, I was back to where I had started: wanting to be substantive and true to myself but instead being abandoned and disillusioned. The concept of supply and demand, I guess.
In hindsight, I had unknowingly become part of the fake news and clickbait media revolution. The week before the 2016 election, the term “fake news” entered the mainstream after New York Magazine wrote a high profile article about Macedonian teens writing viral fake news for money. In that article and many others in the following weeks, journalists explored how fake news spread, as partisan extremes on both sides shared fake articles that appealed to their biases and told them what they wanted to hear, without evaluating the credibility of the sources. Although I never wrote factually false articles, my content spread rapidly for the same reason fake news spread. In truth, I could probably have been equally successful producing the right-wing equivalent of my site centred around Donald Trump instead of Bernie Sanders. The social media techniques and journalistic methods would have remained the same, only the “fake” content would change. Regardless of how scrupulous or unscrupulous my writing was, it took me to places I never thought I would go and introduced me to people I never dreamed of meeting. Eventually, however, the powerful allure of clicks, views, attention and online praise was no substitute for a sense of self-satisfaction which is simply unattainable when you are willing to compromise on who you are and what you believe in for the sake of making others clap. All that remains of the site now is its unoccupied Twitter account, a Facebook page and the myriad of memories I and the others involved with the blog have of the 2016 election when we ‘Felt the Bern.’