​The 6 Best (Worst?) Fake News Headlines

Desireé Duffy  |

The propagation of fake news has taken a chokehold on America, often making it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. With hundreds of fake news sites and articles to contend with, one can easily fall victim to one. Are you one of millions of Americans who have clicked, liked, shared, or believed a fake news story?

Here are some of the top fake news headlines of recent months. Which ones have you seen?

The backstory? This headline and conspiracy theory alleges that Hillary Clinton spearheaded a child prostitution ring out of a pizza restaurant. Despite the outlandishness of the claim, it managed to cause a real-life incident that could have ended in tragedy when believer Edgar M. Welch opened fire with a rifle inside the Washington D.C. pizza shop. Luckily no one was hurt, and Welch was taken into custody.

Now that’s a headline that grabs you by the dark underbelly of your imagination, doesn’t it? Alas, as much as it might seem gruesomely plausible, this story from World News Daily Report—a fine example of a fake news website if there ever was one—is false and did not happen.

As much as we all imagine how sweet exacting revenge for shoddy treatment by an employer would be, (hopefully most of us have more class than this fictitious women) no such event happened. Think about it, if you won millions, wouldn’t you find much better places to use the latrine?

This whopper had over two million shares, comments, and reactions on Facebook (FB). It was published on a site made to look like ABC News. When faced with a website that looks like reputable news, but has sensational headlines, I recommend you take a good look at the URL. In this case, the extra “.co” at the end should be a clear giveaway that this is a fake news site: ABCNews.com.co = fake news.

In an obvious effort to sway some of the more naive voters in last year’s election, this story from Ending the Fed was shared, commented on, and reacted to nearly a million times on Facebook. Hopefully you were not one of the many to fall for this and other politically-charged fake news stories that erupted during the 2016 election.

Alex Jones’ Infowars has perpetrated numerous outrageous conspiracy theories, but none more heart-wrenching than the one that claims the Sandy Hook tragedy didn’t happen. Though Trump and his administration frequently reference Infowars, and Trump even thanked Jones and his audience for their support after the election, the site is rife with fake news and conspiracy theories. According to MediaMatters.org, there are over 104 such headlines on the site, and they state: “…Infowars has no credibility; it has repeatedly posted bizarre and dangerous theories along with false claims and hoaxes.”

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Simply put: They make a small fortune for teenagers. Believe it or not, teenagers and “fake news entrepreneurs”—people who intentionally make money from the proliferation of fake news stories—create these “click-bait” type headlines to pull traffic to their sites. Traffic equals money. Just like in the traditional days of advertising on broadcast TV and radio, viewers and listeners equal ad dollars.

Buzzfeed researched some of the top fake news sites, stating that many of them are based in Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and yes, some are in the US. They state that many of the Macedonian sites can earn $5,000 per month, and even up to $3,000 per day. A damn-good pay day in the US, in Macedonian, that is a fortune.

While This Explains Why Purveyors of Fake News Do What They Do, It Begs the Question: Why Do People Believe Fake News?

I asked an expert on the topic, Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic Magazine and best-selling author of The Moral Arc and Why People Believe Weird Things, among many other books, for his insights.

Shermer says, “There are many cognitive processes at work that I have written about in my books and in several articles, but if it comes down to one underlying process, it is that we want to be right and on the ‘right side’ or ‘right team’. Our brains act more like lawyers than scientists in trying to win our case; in this metaphor the case is the belief, and it isn't important whether it is true or not (any more than lawyers care if their clients are innocent or not), only that we are right (the lawyer wins the case).”

Taking into consideration the current influx of politically-charged fake news, Shermer adds, “This is particularly elevated in today's polarized political climate in which both the Right and the Left have a vested interest in supporting their beliefs about the world. So, when someone says they don't believe in global warming, for example, it has very little to do with the science (about which they very likely have little understanding) and everything to do with the perceived threat that if global warming is real it might lead to government interference with business and industry, which threatens a core belief of conservatives in free markets and capitalism.”

Now that we know the motivations behind distributing fake news, and why some people fervently believe it, we should be able to fix it, right? Well, unfortunately that’s not likely to happen.

In Buzzfeed’s tally of the top 50 Biggest Fake News Hits on Facebook from 2016, they report that one fake news entrepreneur warns us to “expect more Trump hoaxes this year”.

Meanwhile, Google (GOOG) and Facebook say they will stop serving ads on fake news sites. Programs like AdSense, which drives the monetary motivation for fake news stories, is poised to stop posting ads on sites that serve fake or misleading content. This means the primary revenue streams for fake news will dry up.

While Google and Facebook certainly publish a lot of fake news content, and their efforts should be applauded (and followed up with, as they should be held accountable in following through with their promises), there will always be monetary avenues for propaganda as long as there are people willing to consume it.

In my opinion, because the cycle is vicious, and fake news exists because people readily eat it up, it isn’t ever going to go away. People may decry fake news, but they can’t stop themselves from clicking it. Like rubbernecking a car crash on the freeway, people won’t resist the temptation to look. In the end, like all forms of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and sensational journalism, our modern notion of fake news is likely to be with us for a while. The best we can do is temper the flames that fuel it by speaking out against the perpetrators and educating those tempted by it.

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