Short Form: The Online Services That Support Fake News

Introduction

I was recently looking at a fake news article that didn’t have the date the article was published anywhere on the page. I learnt a quick tip a few months ago to remedy this – you view the source code of the page and find the date in there, it normally looks something like:

<meta property=”article:published_time” content=”2018-08-27T21:29:52+00:00″/>

It’s a quick and simple way to find when a web page was published online. When I was doing this for the site clashdaily.com, I noticed this:

document.write(*<div id=”* + c4vl39.mess + *” style=”display: none;background-color: rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.2);color: rgb(255, 255, 255);padding: 10px 20px;text-align: left;line-height: 1.4;font-size: 16px;font-weight: 100;font-family: Open Sans, Arial, sans-serif;letter-spacing: 0.3px;”>\nHany Ad Blockers break the way this site works, causing images to be hidden, videos not to play, content to flow in unexpected ways, and so on. Beyond that, our website relies on internet advertisements to pay the bills, so that you can read it for ‘ );

It’s a piece of code that displays a message when someone is using an ad blocker – this is common across all types of sites. For example, here’s what happens when you view mediabiasfactcheck.com with an ad blocker enabled:

adblock_inaction In the code above from Clash Daily, one thing that caught my eye was the exact message that would display:

Ad Blockers break the way this site works, causing images to be hidden, videos not to play, content to flow in unexpected ways, and so on. Beyond that, our website relies on internet advertisements to pay the bills, so that you can read it for free. Server costs, site development and maintenance, research, and creating content all cost a lot of money, and without advertising revenue, our site may fade from existence. We are real people with jobs and families. If you enjoy the content on this website, which is supported by advertisements, please disable your Ad Blocker. Thanks!

The message says that “our website relies on internet advertisements” to cover the expenses of “server costs, site development and maintenance, research, and creating content”. Clash Daily explicitly say that advertising revenue allows them to create disinformation. I then decided to try to find if there were any clues in the source code about who provides this advertising to Clash Daily.

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({

google_ad_client: “ca-pub-9846160881413318”,

enable_page_level_ads: true

});

</script>

This is the asynchronous code for AdSense, Google’s online advertising service. Despite the Google News Initiative to help combat fake news and to “ensure that quality news content is recognized across our platforms”, Google provides the revenue that keeps Clash Daily, a fake news website, financially viable. I then wondered if this was coincidence and that maybe only a few websites happen to use AdSense. I decided to expand my search and ended up looking through the code for 18 different fake news websites.

https://clashdaily.comhttp://intrendtoday.com/http://thecommonsenseshow.com/
http://dailyheadlines.com/https://madworldnews.com/http://therightscoop.com/
http://dailyheadlines.net/https://nationonenews.com/https://yournewswire.com/
https://dcgazette.com/https://neonnettle.com/http://ladylibertysnews.com/
http://empirenews.net/http://now8news.com/http://actionnews3.com/
http://gotnews.com/http://success-street.com/http://www.abcnews-us.com/

This sites I’ve used are a mixture of clickbait attention-grabbing news and more ‘traditional’ fake news/disinformation. Some of the sites in the sample have also changed recently, whether they have become inactive, such as with nationonenews.com, or if they have even re-branded, such as yournewswire.com now redirecting to newspunch.com. I searched the sites above for AdSense and also read the full source code for each site to see if there are other services that fake news sites commonly use besides advertising. Here’s what I found (click on the table to view the full sized image):

The table above shows the 18 sites with a check next to them for 14 different features found across the sites, ranging from AdSense to PayPal. The sites with the most features are http://dailyheadlines.com/ (10) http://dailyheadlines.net/ (9) and http://thecommonsenseshow.com/ (8). The most used services are Google Fonts (18), WordPress (17) and Google Analytics (15).

Discussion

This is where this short-form blog post differs from the long-form version that I have also posted. In the long-form version I provide a discussion of the features in the above table that gives a description of each the service alongside the implications for the organisation that provides these services.

As the table above shows, some of the world’s biggest companies are supporting the provision and dissemination of disinformation. Google is the company most implicated in this. Google’s ad services are used by the majority of the sites and Google’s other services such as reCAPTCHA, Fonts, Tag Services, Analytics and Google’s Verified Site system are also all used by fake news sites. WordPress, a site hosting company (this blog is a WP site), operates 17/18 of the websites while other services such a Roost push notifications, Yoast SEO, Criteo content re-targeting and Mailchimp mailing systems are all also used by at least two of the sites in this sample.

The payment platforms PayPal and Stripe are also both in use and, similar to AdSense, are strongly implicated as they are directly generating the revenue that allows fake news websites to continue producing disinformation. This shows a two-way classification in the services: while AdSense, PayPal and Stripe are used for revenue generation, services such as Roost, Yoast etc. are used for site optimisation purposes such as SEO. All of these services, however, contribute not only to the existence of fake news but to the efficacy and potency of fake news. Firstly, if fake news sites can generate revenue, they can be considered as viable business ventures. Secondly, SEO tools help the success of articles that consistently contain overtly racist, sexist and anti-semitic topics.

Conclusion

Part of the purpose of this blog post was to implicate companies supporting fake news websites that foster hatred and encourage prejudice. The post has shown that some of the world’s most well-known organisations are actively helping sustain fake news websites and therefore are complicit in the sometimes deadly consequences of fake news.

It could easily be argued that fake news sites don’t pose that much of a risk and that people don’t always believe fake news stories. However, sites such as the sample used in this post undoubtedly foster hatred. Here’s an example of the comments on a 2017 YourNewsWire story about a Hillary Clinton “Pedophile Sex Tape” that perpetuates the notorious pizza gate conspiracy. It took less than a day for people to post anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and racist comments below the article despite the original article not addressing these themes (I have blanked out racist terms): 

YNYfourYNYoneYNYthreeYNYtwo 

Fake news websites do not exist within an entirely fake vacuum – a website’s content is just the surface and looking behind this surface can reveal a lot about how fake news sites function. Fake news articles and disinformation campaigns foster hatred and stoke political and social tensions and they are being propped up by companies and organisations whose beliefs inherently conflict with these practices.

What is being done about this?

The biggest revenue earner for most fake news sites is advertising revenue. While looking through the sites in my sample I found adverts for the National Trust, the Natural History Museum, Jet-2 Holidays, Honda, Sky Betting, and other well known British and global businesses.

It is unlikely that any of these organisations, especially those that are charities, would be happy with their indirect supporting of these websites. What could an outcome of this be? Well, for many organisations their hands are tied; they could potentially withdraw their advertising from Google on moral grounds, but this would considerably affect their businesses. Another option would be to request that their ads don’t appear on these kind of websites. This is where the British organisation Factmata comes in.

Factmata is developing a quality-based metric to “help advertisers avoid placing advertising on fake news, hate speech, and extremist content” (Factmata, 2018). What this means is that Factmata plans to assign quality scores to websites so advertising companies and advertising purchasers can be aware of where their ads are being placed. Dhruv Ghulati, Founder and CEO of Factmata, said the following in an interview earlier this year:

We’re not in the business of trying to remove content or remove opinion from the internet. We’re here to flag potentially sensitive or biased content by providing brands and media agencies with a quality score which indicates the likelihood that a page contains misinformation. Media buyers can then use that score to decide whether they want to take the risk of advertising on that site or not.

Measures to tackle fake news are often attacked on the basis of censorship, however the Factmata method does not propose removing content, but simply starving it of financial support. They can be seen as indirectly shutting down fake news sites by removing the services of legitimate businesses. This is an especially important issue in the U.S. where the First Amendment right to free speech is often used as a shield for not directly closing down fake news websites. If Factmata are successful in their mission to help advertisers avoid sites peddling extremist views, it could be a much more crippling blow to fake news than any literacy education, awareness campaigns or even direct censorship of fake news could achieve.

To view the long-form version of this post, click here.

One thought on “Short Form: The Online Services That Support Fake News

  1. Pingback: Long Form: The Online Services That Support Fake News – FakeBelieve – The Fake News Blog

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