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.

fake-news-onion

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?

fake-news-money

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?

fake-news-adverts

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.

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.

fake-news-check

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.

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!

13 comments

  1. CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NY Times, etc… what do we call these and many other similar sources? Decceptive news? Propaganda sites? Manipulative, lying, divisive, sleazy tabloids?

    We all know the fake news sources. They racebait, sell sexism, play tribal politics, refuse to do stories on the corruption in government for years, look the other way when US policy is being sold to the highest bidder and so much more. They are contemptable and a national disgrace.

    • Are you perhaps a fan of FOX? I noticed that the organizations you mentioned could be said to have left-of-center views. Is it your contention that only conservative or right-leaning media deliver the unvarnished truth? AFAIAC, the attitude of ALL the media (and that includes all the Internet bloggers) towards the public is “If we want you to have an opinion, we will tell what it is!”

      I agree with you. Nobody reports the news anymore. They all are pushing some kind of agenda or grinding some axe.

  2. I cannot find FiB in the Chrome Web Store. I can find a website for FiB, but a search of the Chrome Web Store does not return a result for it.

  3. It is interesting that ‘fake news’ did not become big news until the last US presidential campaign when both parties accused each other of planting false news stories to discredit their opposition. When examined closely, all the ‘fake news’ stories contained some, or a lot of, truth in them. The problem was in how they portrayed the candidate, leading us to conclude that, for the most part, ‘fake news’ is news that we do not agree with personally.

    Way back in the days of Edward R. Morrow, Ernie Pyle and Walter Cronkite, media members, for the most part, only reported the news. Media organizations, for the most part, only delivered the news. Both allowed the recipients of these reports to form their own opinions. Over the years, as media expanded its access from local to national to international, they decided that they can and will shape public opinion. With the advent of the Internet, anybody with a computer, feels that it is his/her God-given right and God-ordain duty to comment on, interpret according to their biases and agenda, and disseminate their version of the news. Even a cursory search of the Internet will show popular support for any point of view, no matter how outrageous. Which begs the question, who defines ‘outrageous’? Most of the time ‘outrageous’ is what we do not like or disagree with. Similarly, ‘fake news’ is stories whose slant we disagree with.

    BTW – ‘fake news’ is not a recent phenomenon. It has been with us for decades, if not longer. How long have check-out aisle rags been published? Anybody recognize the headlines “I’m pregnant by a space alien” or “Prince Harry’s secret poopsie”?

    • @ dragonmouth. Excellent distillation of the current interest in fake news. I am going to create a slide presentation of this article and include your comments for my students. I am preparing a lesson on fake news and this should be a good start for a spirited discussion. Thanks for the perspective. And, I suggest you ignore the attention-challenged infantile morons who can only consume information in bite-sized chunks. Some of us like to do deep dives into issues that matter.

      • The First Amendment guarantees us a right to our opinion, no matter whether it is good, bad or indifferent. :-)

  4. The media and the news reporters have gotten the “bad rap” from the people who complain about them the most. In the days of Eyewitness News…and other broadcasts, you were assured that the news being reported was uncolored, and straight-no chaser. Now? Because a lot of the news reporters are “celebrities”…(Matt Laurer….Al Roker…etc) it seems they have their own fan base and need to generate their own buzz in order to stay relevant. I would recommend various news sites for accurate reporting, but it seems they all have some kind of ulterior motive. Maybe International news sites are better utilized? Because most of the TV stations here in the US seem to be fishing for good Nielsen ratings.

    • You are absolutely correct. There are no more “News” stations. They are all in it for the ratings/clicks/ad space. Unfortunately, it *IS* legal for them to spout off that so-and-so did something as if it were FACT without ANY checking to see if there are any facts available. They want to be first to say it and then everyone else follows because MSNBC said it or Fox said it. Fox screwed up and won a court battle to make this legal.

      If they are going to be able to be called “News Stations”, I feel they should be held liable for fact checking. If they fail to do so, they should be fined…HUGE. If they want to make up stuff like Hillary and Donald are in a secret romance, then they should force the station to change the title page to opinion or be forced to say “None of this was fact checked”. This would stop all of the lies REALLLLY quick!

    • “The media and the news reporters have gotten the “bad rap” from the people who complain about them the most.”
      Have they? Maybe the news reporters should get back to being reporters rather than trying to be entertainers. No matter who you watch, they all have a shtick. Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite’s or Huntley/Brinkley’s straight face delivery of the news. Any day I expect the networks to go to a Busby Berkley/Flo Ziegfeld type of productions.

      “Because a lot of the news reporters are “celebrities””
      I think you have it backwards. I remember when Roker did only the weather and Lauer did street reporting for NBC. Neither one had any following, other than maybe their families and friends. It was TV exposure that made them into the celebrities we think they are. Other than being older, as people, they are no different today than the day they started with NBC. But since they are celebrities, for some inexplicable reason, we hang on their every word as if they were oracles. Why should we care more about what some celebrity, like JLo, Mylie Cyrus or Tom Brady, thinks about the state of American economy than Milton Friedman or Ben Bernanke? Just because they millions more Twitter followers or Facebook likes?

      And, YES. The name of the game in US TV is the Nielsen ratings. How else to explain prime time being filled with sitcoms and reality shows?

  5. Since news-reporting media outlets became corporate entities and wholly owned subsidiaries, the unbiased distilled reporting of the past has given way to the ever increasing ratings race. Truth offers little to the profit motive, so the embellishments increase until the concept of real journalism becomes unrecognizable. Click me, tune in, and let your discerning mind drop out in a tabloid-influenced, celebrity-worshiping, “reality”-TV landfill of swill.

    Once network news departments were basically “non-profit” and were supported by the entertainment-based programming. Now, to draw audiences and ratings, editorializing confuses facts and plays to an outlet’s target base. If I want my own opinions reinforced, I’ll hang with a like-minded group, but could someone please point me to a truly unbiased, accuracy-inspired news source!?

    • There aren’t any anymore. GUess we’ll have to do our OWN fact-checking and info-diving to find out what’s real and what’s not….starting to fell quite “Orwell-ian” this news industry….LOL! “You Say What We TELL You To Say:!…

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