BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman spoke about the impact of fake news on November’s presidential election and the media landscape at an Institute of Politics (IOP) event on Monday.
Silverman defined fake news as “something that’s 100 percent false, that was created consciously to be false, and then the third thing that I put in there is an economic motive.”
By this definition, he said, there was more pro-Trump fake news than pro-Clinton fake news during the election cycle.
Hillary Clinton supporters accused Donald Trump supporters of spreading false stories that proved harmful, including one about a supposed child sex ring based out of D.C. restaurant Comet Pizza, which inspired a gunman to enter the pizzeria to “self-investigate” the rumors.
Some Clinton supporters and staffers also suggested that some anti-Clinton fake news was produced by Russia. According to Silverman, this has been borne out in investigations by BuzzFeed and by the CIA.
Since he was elected President, Trump has fired back by questioning the truthfulness of mainstream news sources. Notably, during a press conference, Trump told a CNN reporter, “You are fake news.”
Silverman explained that the partisan divide over fake news can make it difficult to figure out what counts as fact and what is actually fake. “I think the term fake news has almost been rendered meaningless at this point,” he said.
“Folks who were just trying to do whatever worked on Facebook to send up traffic, what they realized was the Trump stuff did better, and so we got more and more of that,” he said. “At a certain point, the momentum just took over.”
Silverman said that while fake news was not the reason Trump was elected, it may have been a factor in the election process.
“What I would say is, it probably made people more polarized,” he said.
Silverman was careful to note that fake news is not a new phenomenon, but argued that the modern media landscape is uniquely hospitable to fake news. Because website owners earn more advertising money when they get more views, there is a powerful incentive to attract people’s attention even at the expense of the truth.
“Attention is their crop. They’re just trying to harvest as much attention as they can in any way they can,” Silverman said.
The best drivers of attention, Silverman said, are emotion and strong belief. This makes election cycles especially fertile ground for fake news.
Silverman had no easy solutions for the fake news epidemic. Sorting the real from the fake is a difficult and sometimes subjective task, which introduces the possibility of bias. “There’s a danger of censorship there,” Silverman said.
“It is a challenge for journalists to figure out how to make the more substantive stuff as appealing as possible,” Silverman said. Nevertheless, he argued, if news sites don’t work to make real news more engaging, they will drown under the tide of fake stories.
In the meantime, Silverman said, it is important for everyone to remember that truth is not guaranteed in today’s media landscape. He urged consumers to be skeptical and aware of their own biases.
“What you’re seeing is not reality,” Silverman told the audience. “It’s a version of reality customized to you.”