How Fake News Websites Operate, and Why They Do It

Have you ever fallen for a piece of fake news? People across the Internet are putting their minds together to create articles (and even entire sites) about fabricated news. Recently, we saw a spike in fake news making its way into bigger news channels such as Facebook News. It can be very frustrating for someone to learn their despair over their favourite celebrity was completely false, especially from a news feed you thought you could trust.

But have you ever wondered why these articles are being written? What do people gain from spreading fake news? There may be some more obvious answers that spring to mind, but let’s focus on the people who make thousands a month doing this.

Other News Distributors


Before we begin, let’s discuss some of the other reasons why people spread fake news. These include:

  • Fake news being written as a source of satire or comedy. This is most often seen on satire news sites such as The Onion. The writer’s goal in these articles is often to amuse or entertain and is rarely meant to actually trick people into believing its real or pass itself off as authoritative.
  • People writing fake news to annoy or trick people. Such people write these articles to see a rise in views and agitated people in the comments section. They’re mostly focused on the prank itself rather than making money off of it.
  • Verified news sources reporting on news that turned out to be false. They’re often well-meaning and wholly believed the news to be true at the time of reporting it, before discovering it wasn’t true.

While there are a variety of sources of fake news out there, none of them are deliberately trying to fool people into believing fake news in order to make money. So, who does?

The Money Makers


For some people, fake news is annoying at best. For others, it’s a means of business. Back in November, the Washington Post managed to find someone who claimed they made $10,000 a month from writing fake news, while the general earnings of a successful fake news writer is around $5,000. The BBC reported that teens in the city of Macedonia were making thousands of Euros by writing fake news. They find news topics that caused people to flock to their site, then begin to make money off of these readers.

Isn’t it a little strange, however, that people are getting paid for writing false news? Who pays these people to write them? What kind of business do they run?

All-in Advertising


The truth is all of the above people making money from fake news use the same money-maker: advertising.

First, the owner of the website makes a deal with an advert distributor. The website owner then puts adverts supplied to them on their site. The company will then pay the website for the ads that are on the site. There’s a slight catch, however; the ads actually have to be viewed and clicked on by people for it to count. If you put ads on your website, but nobody visits it, you won’t get any money whatsoever.

The Plan

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the goal of ad-driven revenue is to increase the amount of views a website gets. The more views you get, the more people view and click the adverts, the more you earn. Fake news websites create their own website buzz by falsifying news articles, which in turn drives people to their website to look at the adverts set up.

A step-by-step plan looks like this:

  1. A writer writes a fake piece of news on a website set up with advertisements.
  2. They then supply the news to feeds (such as Twitter or Facebook), passing off the news as “breaking.” It will often have a shocking subject, such as a death or a scandal, to increase the amount of people who will click on it.
  3. Users notice the news on their feed. If it’s a particularly shocking piece, it’ll jump out at the user and cause them to click it. After reading the news, the users will then spread it on their social channels to raise awareness of it. Sometimes, even official news sources will pick up the story for their own site.
  4. Keen to read on the “breaking news” being spread around the Internet, people flock to the article to read it.
  5. As the readers visit the site to read the news, they’re shown the adverts set up beforehand. The views and clicks on these adverts translate into advertisement money.
  6. The fake news writer earns money based on the vast amount of attention their website receives.

How to Beat It


So, clearly the solution is to avoid fake news websites and stop giving them ad revenue. Facebook and other news distributors are already cracking down on fake news, but what can you do to help prevent being fooled by these articles?

If you see “breaking news” from a source that isn’t very reputable (such as a random Twitter hashtag trend), try not to get invested in it. If you want to verify that it’s the real deal, search for the news topic on your favourite search engine or news aggregate. See what comes up in the results; if there’s a few (or no) results that are trustworthy, leave the topic alone for a few hours. If it still hasn’t been picked up after waiting, you can safely assume it was fabricated.

To help combat the spread of fake news, there are browser extensions you can try for yourself. FiB started up as an answer to combat the fake news spreading across the Internet. Its goal is to work with Chrome to identify and analyse news as it appears on a feed. Once it’s finished its analysis, it lets the user know if the news is verified or completely fabricated.

News to Me

With the development of the monetisation of fake news, it’s never been better to spread it around the Internet to make a quick buck off of the public. Now you know how they operate, why they do, and how to stop yourself from being caught up in the trap.

Have you ever been fooled by fake news? Have any of your friends found themselves spreading incorrect articles? Let us know below!

Simon Batt
Simon Batt

Simon Batt is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for cybersecurity.

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