Fake news sites spread ebola hysteria: is there a way to stop them?

Ebola is a scary disease, but not as scary as the stupidity and public panic it can create. That’s why “news” sites like National Report, which reaches millions of people through Facebook, are so infuriating: they make money by fanning hysteria at the time of a crisis.

Here’s a screenshot, for instance, of National Report’s homepage on Monday, four days after a New York doctor was quarantined:

National Report

The story is nonsense, of course, but the website is hoping that it will go viral through [company]Facebook[/company] channels, which will in turn let the owners of National Report make money selling ads.

Unfortunately, the tactic is working. As the Verge reported, millions of people saw or shared earlier versions of the National Report’s ebola “reporting,” including a story about a whole town under quarantine in Texas. That piece of “news” was just as false as the New York story above, but it still rang true enough for hoards of Facebook users to share it. Does that matter?

On one hand, the fake ebola stories are just the latest example of a surge in viral rubbish on the internet that other media companies have long decried (in part because it robs their own websites of money and attention). But on the other hand, this particular brand of viral idiocy is more noxious than usual since it has the potential to induce the sort of panic and over-reaction that can turn a minor crisis into a major one.

Even worse, National Report is just one of a group of viral sites that are likewise trying to make money with fake news (the Verge lists Big America News, Huzlers, Celebricity, Empire News as among the other purveyors of the bunk news that is washing through social media feeds).

While these fake news stories are not just outrageous, but potentially dangerous, it’s hard to see how to go about stopping them.

Criminal law might be one way to solve the problem. After all, the publishers of these websites are doing something bad, and they deserve to be punished – much like the Wall Street analyst who tweeted fake news during the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

But in both of these cases, treating the situation as a crime runs afoul of free speech law.

“It’s important to note the First Amendment gives us the right to lie … The government can’t be in position to be the truth police and people can’t be prosecuted for making up stories,” according to Ken Paulson, a former editor of USA Today who is now President of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Do you remember the Weekly World News' Bat Boy? (Source: Wikipedia creative commons)

Do you remember Bat Boy from the Weekly World News? (Source: Wikipedia creative commons)

Paulson adds that whole industries, like Hollywood gossip rags or tabloids full of Bat-boy stories, have been built on lies and half-truths. And, in the case of the fake news sites, they are just a drop in the sea of internet information.

Paulson appears correct that the likes of National Report are beyond the reach of the law, but does that mean there is no other way to undercut the fake news business?

Pressure on the sites’ advertisers might be one option. Realistically, however, the companies buying ads on sites like National Report care even less about their reputation than the people publishing the fake news in the first place.

That means social media platforms, which act as online oxygen for fake news, might be the best candidates to snuff them out. It appears they are trying, including Facebook’s attempts to slap “satire” labels on fake stories. Such efforts, though, have so far come up short — the viral fake news sites are still going strong — and it’s unclear, in any event, if Facebook regards news stories as anything other than a form of “engagement” to keep readers on its site.

Fake news, then, may produce more damage than ever, but is nonetheless here to stay.