Warning Signs
Illustration by Dave Donald
Illustration by Dave Donald

To understand the development of fake news in Canada, go to a shopping mall in St. Catharines, Ontario. There you’ll meet 17-year-old Yaman Abuibaid, one of the country’s pioneers of fake news.

On a chilly, mid–November afternoon in 2017, Abuibaid enters The Pen Centre mall, sporting a dark blue St. Mary’s hockey jersey with a gym bag hoisted over his shoulder. Despite his slim physique, he looks like a high school athlete. “It’s actually my friend’s jersey. It was hockey day at school,” says Abuibaid, a Grade 12 Denis Morris Catholic High School student. “I wore this to fit in with the crowd.” Though hockey isn’t his game, Abuibaid used to be into sports, specifically football, until Grade 8 when he lost interest in favour of computer programming and web development.

The young techie has been developing websites since he was in Grade 6, but he struggled to get page views and visitors. This would all change when Abuibaid reached Grade 9 and heard rumblings in the Denis Morris lunchroom about an article about Kim Kardashian being spotted in public, supposedly missing her right arm. Many students believed this story—but Abuibaid wasn’t so sure.  “Everyone was going on this website, and it was fake,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s definitely the key—fake news attracts people.’”

In November 2014, Abuibaid officially entered the world of fake news with the launch of Hot Global News. He would go on to launch three other fake news websites: The Global Sun, The National Sun and Avocado News. Abuibaid’s ventures would prove to be both popular and lucrative. He says his websites have reached over 10 million visitors and generated over $70,000.

For more than three years, the sleek, black desk wedged in the corner of Abuibaid’s St. Catharines bedroom became his unofficial office. Often sitting next to him would be a black coffee mug with math formulas and equations inscribed on the outside of the cup. At its height, Hot Global News had around 15 people writing for the site, mainly friends and acquaintances of Abuibaid, as well as co-founder Daré Adebanjo. “We didn’t talk to each other—we’d just write the article, the title, Photoshop an image and publish it within 30 minutes,” says Abuibaid about Avocado News. Even the quotes in their articles, often attributed to high–profile individuals, such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, were fabricated. In just over two years, Abuibaid says his sites racked up 200,000 Facebook page likes cumulatively.

Now a high–schooler in his graduating year, Abuibaid is a small part of a global phenomenon. There were approximately 167 active fake news sites around the world as of December 2017, according to BuzzFeed’s media editor Craig Silverman, who has been studying accuracy and trustworthiness in the media for 14 years. The majority of sites on his 2017 list are not Canadian–based.

 

Alarming results regarding Canadians’ inability to identify fake news surfaced in May 2017 through an Ipsos poll, conducted on behalf of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), about Canadians trust in traditional news media. Of the 1,001 Canadians surveyed, 69 percent said they continue to trust traditional news media. Roughly 81 percent of respondents said they were somewhat confident in their ability to discern what is real news and what is fake. The poll also revealed that approximately 63 percent of English-speaking Canadians surveyed failed a quiz on fake news that required participants to indicate which six images from news websites were false. “Credibility and trustworthiness of the news is a big issue, a volatile issue, a potentially dangerous issue—and Canadians are going to want some help in sorting this out,” Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker told Global News.

While some use fake news to push a political agenda, others are driven by the alluring prospect of making significant amounts of money. “It’s really all clickbait,” says Abuibaid, with the goal of getting as many clicks as possible. Fake news propagators create incendiary, yet false headlines with the goal of driving readers to their websites. Once a visitor clicks on an ad, both the website creator and the ad–service provider make money. Google AdSense is one of the most popular digital–advertising programs. One of AdSense’s bid types is a cost-per-click calculation based on an auction–type system, which enables advertisers to note how much they’re willing to pay for clicks on their ads.

“Standards are an issue in our business,” says Andrew Casale, president and CEO of Index Exchange, an independent and international advertising marketplace where digital media companies sell their ad impressions openly and in real time. “Some companies are very short-term motivated. There are [ad] exchanges that just want volume and will list absolutely anything—that is a problem,” he says. Casale and his company pride themselves on working with fewer, but quality clients—like Bell Media, Rogers and CBC-Radio Canada.

Casale estimates that there are over 90 other active global advertising exchanges, some of which allow illegitimate news websites to reap the rewards of advertising dollars. “As a member of the [digital advertising] ecosystem, it is far too easy for companies with bad intentions to start up websites with the sole intention of generating traffic by putting out fake headlines and fake content, generating a lot of clicks, and in turn, ad revenue,” he says.

Some major companies use automated tools to reach consumers online. In March 2017, JPMorgan Chase ads appeared on approximately 400,000 websites per month, according to The New York Times. The report revealed that an ad for JPMorgan Chase’s private client services had appeared on hyperpartisan and fake-news websites, specifically pointing to one that appeared on the website Hillary 4 Prison below a headline claiming that actor Elijah Wood revealed “the horrifying truth about the Satanic liberal perverts who run Hollywood.” As a result, JPMorgan started limiting its display ads to approximately 5,000 websites it preapproved, a practice known as “whitelisting.”

Over the past year-and-a-half, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have come under fire for their roles in the cycle of fake news and misinformation, and faced particularly severe scrutiny in 2016 during the U.S. presidential election. American media pundits and political commentators alleged they were not thorough enough in stopping the dissemination of false or misleading content.

More recently in October 2017, concerns were raised when it was discovered that fact-checking organizations such as Snopes.com and PolitiFact were inadvertently promoting fake news stories like “Melania Trump is leaving the White House,” and “Televangelist Joel Osteen is leaving his wife!” with ads served by Google, according to the Times. As a result, co-owner and vice president of Snopes.com, Vinny Green, told the Times the website had tried to filter out misleading advertisements from the 150 million ads he said were sold and aired on the site in September 2017.

“We don’t want sites that misrepresent themselves or deceive users in our network and we’ve taken steps by prohibiting Google ads on sites with misrepresentative content,” Aaron Brindle, head of public affairs for Google Canada, said in an email. The policy created in 2016 regarding “misrepresentative content” states, “Google Ads may not be placed on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about you, your content or the primary purpose of your web property,” Brindle also writes that: “We are extending the principles and updating our policy to ban ads being placed on sites with misrepresentative content. We recognize that we have a huge responsibility to connect people to quality information—it’s a job we take very seriously.” If a website is violating its policies, Google will first send a notification of the violation to the site operator. If the operator does not “bring [its] site into compliance,” then ad serving will be deactivated, according to its AdSense policies.

Twitter has faced significant issues surrounding fake news and misinformation. In response, Facebook, Google, and Twitter all announced plans last November to implement “trust indicators” to assist users in assessing the credibility of news outlets and journalists that appear in their news feeds. When the Ryerson Review of Journalism attempted to arrange an interview with someone from Twitter, we were directed to blog posts published by the company. Twitter also declared last December it was updating its in-product messaging when it holds back content, to explain where content was withheld and why.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in August 2017, Facebook is the most popular source for news out of all social media sites. The company has often been criticized for not taking enough action to curb the dissemination of fake news and hyperpartisan stories. Despite Facebook taking steps to curtail fake news from its platform, John Fraser, president and CEO of Canada’s National NewsMedia Council (NNC), says, “Most of the fake news that students would be seeing, it doesn’t come from media—it comes from Facebook postings of their colleagues and friends. They heard some story, they picked up something, they passed it along and off it goes. It has this whole currency.”

For over a year, Facebook has been exploring various options to rid its platform of fake news. In December 2016, the company announced its “Disputed Flags” tool to alert news consumers of false and questionable information with a red flag. But after running tests for a year, the company discovered Disputed Flags didn’t have its intended effect. “Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs,” Facebook said in a statement.

This past December, Facebook ditched Disputed Flags and unveiled its “Related Articles” function to help better contextualize the story people are reading. Through its research, the company found that displaying related articles next to fake news stories led to fewer shares than when the Disputed Flags were shown. In January, Facebook made major changes to its users’ newsfeeds, announcing it would scale back the amount of public content from publishers and businesses, prioritizing content from people’s Facebook friends (bring on the cat videos and GIFs—and less news).

“The company is making it harder for legitimate news organizations to share their stories (and thus counter any false narratives), and by doing so, is creating a breeding ground for the fake news it’s trying to stamp out in the first place,” writes Swapna Krishna, a technology and science journalist for Engadget.com.

In late January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media platform will start prioritizing “trustworthy” news in newsfeeds, based on what Facebook members identify through a survey as credible and authentic information. Based on their subjectivity, users voice their opinions regarding what they believe is and isn’t fake.

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC), a voluntary self-regulatory ethics body for the English-language news media industry in Canada, has over 800 members, including the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Canadian Press, all of whom follow their own comprehensive guidelines. The NNC receives complaints about what people think is fake news, but the public isn’t always catching actual fakes. Complainants raise issues about the science used in stories about vaccinations or climate change, alleging news organizations are trying to push their own agendas and not basing articles or broadcasts on the right scientific studies. According to the NNC, this might be because there is no uniformly understood or accepted definition of fake news. From 2016 to 2017, the NNC says it received 42 complaints that were primarily about accuracy, 16 complaints about opinion articles, and nine complaints regarding fake news. These complaints were registered against both members and non-members of the NNC. The organization says it received 79 total complaints in 2016 and 86 in 2017.

 

Abuibaid and his Hot Global News colleagues circumvented digital advertising policies—like Google’s, which prevent sites from requesting people to click on ads and purchasing pay-per-click space in an attempt to gain traction on the web. They would either pay people at Denis Morris Catholic High School $5, give them a free Spotify account, or free Apple News and PlayStation cards, paid for by Hot Global News. In return, schoolmates would share the website’s articles on Facebook. “We had around 50 people at our school share our links, and then from there it just branched off,” Abuibaid says. “If you share a link on Facebook, five to 30 of your friends will see your post. So those 50 people that we got to share, hundreds and hundreds [of people] saw it.”

A story that really put Hot Global News on the digital map was an October 2015 article with the headline, “Justin Trudeau To Build Marijuana Stores In Every City Across Canada”—a play on Trudeau’s campaign pledge to legalize cannabis. According to Buzzfeed News, that article was viewed more than 170,000 times and obtained more than 20,000 likes, shares, and Facebook comments. In the month leading up to Trudeau being sworn in, Abuibaid and Adebanjo published a series of articles about the incoming prime minister. Their site’s ad revenue jumped by over 2,000 percent that month (from around $500, to $10,734.40), according to BuzzFeed.

“It was Justin Trudeau that sparked our success, which started everything,” Abuibaid says. He notes that Hot Global News first wrote celebrity fake news articles about Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea. The website didn’t make nearly as much money compared to when it started publishing stories about Trudeau. “I was sitting in class and my teacher was talking about Trudeau. I was in Grade 10,” Abuibaid says. “I wrote [the article] in class, and the next day, [I had] $900 in my AdSense account.”

 

The headline reads, “President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse To Leave Office If Trump Gets Elected.” The source? A Vancouver-based satirical news website called The Burrard Street Journal (BSJ). The story would go on to become one of the site’s biggest, generating over 383,000 Facebook reactions and 892 on Twitter despite the story being deemed “false” by Snopes.com, who claim to be the “oldest and largest fact-checking website on the Internet.” It was a busy news day, between the aftermath of the Labor Day weekend shootings in Chicago and reports of a suspected chlorine bomb attack in Syria, but the fake story still made an impact. But BSJ doesn’t see it as fake, they see it as something else: satire.

BSJ’s disclaimer page puts the site and its content in context: “If you clicked here, then you are probably doubting the legitimacy of one of our articles. Well friend, those are some good instincts, as the BSJ is a satire news, parody and humour website and is for entertainment purposes only. All Burrard Street Journal and Burrard Street Football articles are satire news and entirely fabricated…Please feel free to copy and paste this disclaimer into your Facebook comment to ‘prove this site’s bullshit.’” It’s one of many information-based websites throughout North America that walks the line between fake news and satire.

Although John Egan, the founder of the BSJ, has writers from Canada, the U.S., and England contributing to the site, the bulk of the content is written by him. However, Egan says his girlfriend, Janael McConkey, wrote the site’s most popular story. It was published the day before the January 24, 2017 U.S. House of Representatives vote that permanently passed the 1976 Hyde Amendment into law. The U.S. legislative provision prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, except in instances of life-threatening conditions for women, or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

McConkey’s article, “Female Legislators Unveil ‘Male Ejaculation Bill’ Forbidding The Disposal Of Unused Semen,” stated, “a group of leading female legislators have enacted a new bill that forbids American men from disposing of ‘unused’ sperm, requiring them to bring any recreational semen to a nearby fertility clinic.” The article was, of course, deemed false by Snopes.com. But it didn’t matter—it was a success, bringing BSJ’s Facebook following up from 23,000 to 33,000, Egan says.

Egan classifies his site as satire. Silverman sees this as strategic. Over the past year or so, authors of fake news have discovered a method of hiding behind the veil of satire and using it as a shield to reap the rewards of digital advertising dollars. By claiming their website is satirical, fake news creators can defend themselves against allegations of fake news and misinformation.

Silverman notes the difference between legitimate satire sites and personalities—such as The Onion and The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz—and sites like the BSJ, calling them another breed. “[They] will, in some cases, actually publish genuine satire, but they also publish stories that have no satirical value,” he says. “And those are the ones that often get the most attention, the most virality and earn the most money.” Silverman categorizes the BSJ’s story about Obama refusing to leave office as failing to meet the qualities of satire. “There is absolutely nothing satirical about that story,” he says. “It is 100 percent a fake story trying, at that point, to capitalize on the fears of Trump actually getting elected.”

Julia Creet, an associate professor in York University’s English department, has been teaching classes about satire for 20 years. Creet, unlike Silverman, deems the BSJ satirical. For one, she says, the site’s disclaimer makes it “very clear” that it’s satire. Secondly, you have to judge the article in the context of the whole website. She notes the BSJ article, “President Trump Alleges He Was Sexually Assaulted by Hillary Clinton” is on the same page as another BSJ story, “Donald Trump’s Approval Rating Rises Above IQ for the First Time.”

“No Trump supporter is going to read those two headlines together and think that this accusation is actual news,” she says. Creet states that a lot of BSJ’s articles play on elements of satire, such as irony and exaggeration. “That is the risk satire takes,” she says, “that somebody might read it and say, ‘Oh my God, this is real news.’ But the joke’s on them, really, if they do that.”

How do readers figure out where to draw the line? In April 2017 alongside her research team, Victoria Rubin, a professor at Western University in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, launched the “Satire Detector,” which is based on technology she and her colleagues presented in a June 2016 research paper. This detector partly determines whether a news piece submitted is satirical or legitimate. Rubin says satire is a rhetorical technique used across any platform with the goal of eliciting an intellectual or emotional response on a significant issue. “The purpose is not just simple mockery. The target is critiqued and it’s often a call to action,” Rubin says. “If it doesn’t quite comply with this sort of definition, that would not be a satirical piece.” The Satire Detector is a “narrow-purpose tool” where a user can input the headline of an article, as well as 1,000 words of the body text. After the search is conducted, the detector will determine whether the article is satirical.

 

In front of a white wall inside BuzzFeed’s downtown Toronto office, Craig Silverman and his team work to debunk fake news and other online misinformation. Silverman works on his computer, with a red placard that reads “Super Analista Del Web” resting on his desk. Posted on the wall behind Silverman is a black flag with the words “fake news”, a gift from his editor in New York. Just above the flag, the word “debunk” is printed on a piece of white paper. Fake news and debunk are two words that drive Silverman and his three-person team daily.  

“For a long time, I felt like I was off in this weird obsessive corner focusing on something that certainly some people cared about, but it was not a topic of general conversation, and certainly not a topic that was considered an urgent priority by governments around the world,” Silverman says. Now, it’s his daily beat.

Every morning, Silverman goes through his list of fake news sites and examines their recent activity. Over time, he has built up saved searches of fake news sites using a tool called “BuzzSumo,” which enables Silverman to analyze how content from a publisher has been doing over a certain time period. Silverman sees how much traction fake news items from illegitimate sites get across a variety of platforms—most notably, Facebook and Twitter. CrowdTangle Link Checker is another resource Silverman uses to detect the “virality” and social media engagement—it shows him which Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are sharing fake news and misinformation. “What [CrowdTangle] does is it gives us the ability to actually see who has been key in helping this spread,” Silverman says.

When the RRJ went to visit Silverman at the BuzzFeed Toronto office in early January, he showed a fake news story through BuzzSumo that got a significant amount of social media engagement that week. Its headline read, “Room full of servers and hard drives destroyed in Clinton house fire,” and the fabricated story received over 12,000 Facebook engagements and 183 Twitter interactions. The source was a U.S.-based conspiracy website known as YourNewsWire.com, one of 167 fake news websites Silverman indexed in his 2017 list.

Silverman says if a fake news story is doing really well and reaching a lot of people over social media, he will cover it and debunk it. There is one caveat, though. “You always have to balance, is it worth actually giving them the inadvertent attention of saying, ‘Hey this site is making up stories?’” he says. “We always try to wait and see if something is really spreading. If people really do seem to believe it, then we’ll step in.”

Rather than relying on news organizations like BuzzFeed, or fact-checking websites like Snopes.com, Silverman says there are ways the everyday news consumer can counter fake news and online misinformation. “To actually combat this problem, there’s a lot of things that have to happen,” he says. “But for the average person on the most basic level, people need to be aware that there’s a huge amount of information coming from a wide variety of sources—and the fact that we have such a democratized media environment means it’s going to be coming from tons of different places, and it’s going to have different levels of trustworthiness and veracity.” Silverman advises users to be critical and skeptical of online information before they share and disseminate it. “The first piece is just awareness—and then from there I really encourage people to read something closely and figure out, ‘What are the sources being cited and where is this information coming from?’” he says. “If I were to take one of the quotes or the information in the story and Google it, do I find other sources, reputable sources that I’m familiar with that are reporting it? Just those steps alone, that extra little bit of scrutiny would help people 80 to 90 percent of the time.”

Critical thinking, analysis, and healthy skepticism are at the heart of the youth media literacy initiative known as NewsWise, plans for which were announced last September. Google Canada’s philanthropic entity, Google.org, gave the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the youth civic engagement-based charitable organization, CIVIX, a $500,000 grant to create and administer NewsWise, which will assist youth, ages nine to 19, in developing skills to sort and filter what is and isn’t fake news.

The NewsWise roll-out will occur in Ontario classrooms this spring in advance of the provincial election campaign. It will be in place across the country by the 2019 federal election. “If we can get these young people practicing how to access and interact with news and different sources of news,” says Dan Allan, the content director of CIVIX, “we’re hoping this could become a lifelong habit of always thinking through what you’re reading and hearing>”

 

Sitting outside Starbucks at The Pen Centre, Abuibaid reflects on his fake news career, and whether misleading people bothered him. “No, because it was just an easy thing to do,” he says. “We were tricking people, but it never occurred to us how crazy it could possibly be—how people would think negative about this, how it could change people’s opinions or perspective.” Looking back on his experience, Abuibaid notes not knowing the impact of his and his colleagues’ actions at the time. “It was somewhat ignorant on our part. We didn’t realize what we were doing,” he says. “We would just see numbers go up, our bank accounts go up, our statistics for our website go up—but it never occurred to us that what we were doing was immoral.” 

Brill’s Content Guard

The founder of a long-gone and respected review of journalism returns with a new venture—fighting fake news

To Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz, both journalists and news entrepreneurs, they’re giving the nod to real-life, human journalists to combat arguably the most prevalent technological phenomenon today—fake news and online misinformation. In contrast to those technologically driven initiatives using digital tools, indicators and algorithms, NewsGuard Technologies—launched in March—will employ dozens of veteran journalists, tasked with analyzing approximately 7,500 news and other information-based websites most viewed and distributed within the U.S. The news sources will be assigned reliability ratings akin to a traffic light: green, if it’s reliable information; yellow, if a website is repeatedly biased or imprecise; and red, if a site deliberately publishes misinformation and propaganda intended to deceive. These ratings will be followed with a “Nutrition Label” blurb about each source, detailing the site’s track record, ownership and the scope of their coverage, among other things. “Two NewsGuard analysts will independently review and rate each site or online publication. One will then draft the Nutrition Label, which the other will edit,” NewsGuard’s launch announcement states.

“Our goal is to help solve this problem now by using human beings—trained, experienced journalists—who will operate under a transparent, accountable process to apply basic common sense to a growing scourge that clearly cannot be solved by algorithms,” Brill said in the announcement. On the surface, this initiative can seem time-consuming and tedious. But this may be the kind of focus and dedication a serious issue like fake news needs in order to be properly addressed.

Media literacy organizations, educational institutions and initiatives, and intrigued consumers will be provided with a browser plug-in edition of the software, supplying NewsGuard’s Nutrition Labels and ratings to them for free. According to CNN, NewsGuard will try to license its Nutrition Labels and reviews to tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. Once its English-language service is established in the U.S., NewsGuard will expand internationally.

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