How easy it is to spread misinformation via an all-too-willing media

29 Mar 2021

Image: © Visual Generation/Stock.adobe.com

Mainstream media has long been criticising social media platforms for their role in spreading misinformation. Elaine Burke writes that it’s time they took a hard look at their own sources.

‘Prince William named world’s sexiest bald man’ is probably enough to get your attention on an online news story. The headline is surprising, in a world where Stanley Tucci exists, of course. And it’s not just about a mega-famous figure but a bona fide British royal, a family that audiences around the world will keenly follow. It’s a clickbait goldmine, is what it is.

And if you’d just seen that in the headline and clicked – despite your better instincts, if only so you could fervently list the many ways Stanley Tucci is sexier than Prince William to your friends in the WhatsApp chat later – you’d probably do so knowing that you’re about to jump into some junk journalism. A bit of harmless nonsense, sure. Giving the group chat something other than lockdown to lambast.

But it’s the headline that added “according to a new Google study” that triggered my think piece this week. This angle on the story was published by Indy100, the online-only source from long-running UK publication The Independent which, according to its Twitter bio, is focused on “seriously addictive news”. Under that brief this story checks out, appealing to the baser instincts of our brain’s sweet tooth and triggering our desire for a junk journalism fix.

The problem is this brand of junk journalism has been dressed up in a wrapper claiming to be health food. The “Google study” referenced in the title is not a study from Google, and it’s not even worthy of the word ‘study’, for that matter.

E-commerce consultant Dan Barker picked apart this ‘study’ on Twitter, pointing out that it was conducted by Longevita, a UK company offering access to hair transplants in Turkey. That’s quite a leap away from the iconic Big Tech company the headline implies, and comes with some red flags around the agenda of the source.

And then there’s the ‘research’, which seems to have involved putting terms such as ‘Prince William sexy’ into a Google search bar and totting up how many results it says there are. And not since you were told that Prince William is apparently sexier than Stanley Tucci has a record scratch sounded so loudly in your brain as it configures this flawed information.

The methodology is so full of holes you could sieve the flour for your banana bread with it. Yet this pathetic press release from a brand that stands to benefit from a world ignorant to the boundlessly sexy baldness of Stanley Tucci was dressed up to look legitimate and better capture your clicks.

‘This is not a bit of harmless fun. Young women were directed to read about a ‘scientific study’ taking targeted aim at their body insecurities’

But it’s just a silly story that anyone could see through, right? What harm? It’s not like this brand created a fake science database to publish its equally fake study. Or that it created a number of sock puppet accounts to spread that story on various social platforms. Well, not in this in this instance, but that has and will no doubt continue to happen online.

Last year, Eliza Gauger fell down an internet rabbit hole that led her to FemLife – a central point in a network of online touchpoints all built around one man’s desire to spread a fabricated scientific study about the size of women’s breasts. Yes, here you go: another momentary record scratch as you try to compute that information.

Gauger uncovered these connections in a Twitter thread and later recounted them to ex-BuzzFeed tech reporter and avidly online journalist Ryan Broderick for his Garbage Day newsletter. While the ‘study’ in this story is intentionally manufactured as misinformation, it was picked up by news sources who knew it had a juicy hook to reel in readers – just like the ‘Google study’ on bald men.

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And it’s not just the Maxim-type lad mags that picked up on the titillating story. UK news publication The Telegraph published a now-deleted report, of which online traces still remain. Nor was it confined to the realm of horny male journalism, seeing publication in Teen Vogue and Seventeen, two long-standing magazines aimed specifically at young women.

This is where the junk journalism starts to cause rot. This is not a bit of harmless fun. Young women were directed to read about a ‘scientific study’ taking targeted aim at their body insecurities. These articles were also fodder for the online swamps of toxic masculinity such as 4chan.

Delve deeper into the alternate boob-science reality created by FemLife and you also see that the only thing the connected sock puppet accounts cared more about than breasts was Donald Trump. And this is how junk journalism has contributed to spreading far-right ideologies online. Record scratch. Mic drop. Pack up the decks and turn off the lights.

‘Trusted online media sources have boosted junk journalism by putting their own credibility up for rent’

OK I won’t just dramatically leave it there. And you don’t even have to click to generate another page view for the satisfying conclusion.

The proliferation of the unmistakeably flawed Longevita data shares stark similarities with the bogus boob story. And if journalists aren’t willing to bear the responsibility of even the merest modicum of editorial curation, we are constantly at risk of the rot from junk journalism. Clickbait content spread across an all-too willing media landscape can potentially provide millions with an avenue into something much more sinister.

So much focus has been put on social media platforms’ responsibility for spreading far-right ideologies online, and more often than not it’s the mainstream news media shining the interrogative spotlight. But they need to turn that light on themselves and own up to their own role in spreading misinformation.

They may not always be the source of content gleefully led by misinformation for the sake of higher page views, but many mainstream websites encourage the rot spread by junk journalism in other ways. The bad sources and stories that don’t get picked up by mainstream media find life in trashier and murkier online spaces. You know the sites I’m talking about. They trigger the sweet tooth with headlines just like the ones crafted around sexy baldness and women’s breasts. You’ve seen these links and headlines because they are appearing embedded in the pages of mainstream media sites.

Websites will gain legitimacy every time another established website links to it. This is the nature of how the internet works – a web of hyperlinks where the calibre of those links can determine your search results ranking. Sketchy sources are gaining more and more legitimacy every time Taboola, Outbrain or similar services pay respected mainstream media sites to host their links.

I’m not just saying these sources are producing trashy content from my high horse of haughty journalism. I’ve personally seen the job specification of these copywriters, and they are going out of their way to sensationalise stories and tease them out using misdirection.

Thus, trusted online media sources are trapped in a world wide web of their own making. They have boosted junk journalism by putting their own credibility up for rent, and now they have to compete at the same level by crafting their own junk stories chasing the high of virality. These news sources are fully aware what they’re doing publishing a fake study to attract clicks. It even creates a domino effect for more stories on the very response they triggered themselves.

It’s a race to the bottom in the economy of page views. But just so this publication’s legitimacy can’t be called into question, let me say categorically, for the record, that Stanley Tucci is sexy.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com