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News Fakes

Mainstream media funds fake news

When debunkers link to fake-news stories, they do more harm than good. There’s a right way and wrong way to cite unreliable sources. Most publishers use the latter.

Major news outlets are key contributors to clickbait’s booming business. Their direct links to fake-news stories boost ad revenue and SEO for misinformation. This post provides supporting data, ways to responsibly cite disreputable sources, and a plea for publications to adopt a link policy.

Most links on the internet act as “votes” for search engines. And one likely result of serious, respected publications linking to — and therefore “voting” for — fake news is that Google’s algorithm ended up ranking the false story higher.

That debunk of a viral fake news story might help the hoaxers, First Draft (2016)

First Draft’s 2016 warning still plagues publishers today. The lax linking habits of many fact-based news sites inadvertently help fake news profit and propagate.

Links can transport readers to any webpage on the planet. But there are places you shouldn’t patronize and sites you shouldn’t send visitors. Yet that’s exactly what major publishers do when they link directly to mis/disinfo.

The damage done

If other prominent websites link to the page (what is known as PageRank), that has proven to be a good sign that the information is well trusted.

How search works: Search algorithms: Quality of content, Google

Links from high-quality factual news to low-quality fake news cause damage in two ways:

  • More revenue for fake-news sites. More traffic means more page-views means more ad income (and, as traffic increases, higher ad rates), siphoning ad dollars from legitimate publishers to junk news — at least $250M annually.
  • Better SEO for fake-news articles. In Google’s search algorithms, “PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is.” And links to fake-news hurt the linker: “Google trusts sites less when they link to spammy sites or bad neighborhoods,” says Google Search Quality engineer Matt Cutts.

The link economy

In media, we are moving from a content economy to a link economy.… Links are the new currency of media. Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money.

The link economy v. the content economy, Jeff Jarvis: Buzz Machine (2008)

Major news sites majorly support the clickbait business model. (Perhaps dubious publishers even try to get their claims debunked.)

For example, The Washington Post called The Gateway Pundit a “bonkers website,” whose “conspiracy theory-spewing” election-fraud tirades were “laughably stupid — but also obviously stupid.” Yet dozens of WaPo articles link readers directly to those stupid, bonkers claims.

The New York Times called Gateway “notorious for regularly crossing the line from wild hyperpartisan spin into outright falsehoods.” But that same article linked thrice to those falsehoods. To search engine algorithms, the Grey Lady is vouching for Gateway.

This damage isn’t theoretical. It’s real. WaPo and NYT links to Gateway’s site account for half of the top-followed links, which are a Moz estimate of a link’s impact on search results (see data tables below). NYT links alone total half the top 10. Links from The Guardian, Vox, and CNN are also among the top-followed.

Occupy Democrats low-credibility rating by Logically

On the hyperpartisan left, a dozen respected news outlets link to Occupy Democrats, as if it were legitimate news. It is not: Media Bias/Fact Check calls it a Questionable Source. Our.news flags it as Problematic. Logically.ai rates its Source Credibility as Low.  And Wikipedia says it “publishes false information, hyperpartisan content, and clickbait.” Yet NBC, NPR, Time, the L.A. and N.Y. Times, WaPo, HuffPo, and The Atlantic, Guardian, and Independent are all top-followed linkers, boosting ad income and search-engine results for fake news.

The Occupy-ers failed most of their PolitiFact checks. Yet PolitiFact’s link to the site is among the top-50.

A BuzzFeed survey found the “fake-news headline” that most respondents (inaccurately) “believed to be very or somewhat accurate” was an Occupy story. BuzzFeed’s survey and their debunk of that story both linked to the disinfo.

Responsible links to unreliable info

Of course, reporters should cite their sources. Here are two ways to do so without benefiting bad actors. The second, “nofollow” links, is better than bare links. But best is linking to a copy saved in a web archive.

1. The Wayback way

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is the largest, oldest (born 1996), and, perhaps, easiest to use web archive. It preserves pages (and outlinks in that page), then tracks and compares subsequent changes. Iffy’s Wayback Workshop has a slew of tools for working with Wayback URLs.

Fact-checkers also favor the Archive.today and Archive-It, another IA project. Memento Time Travel searches multiple archives for a saved URL.

To safely cite an unreliable source, don’t link directly. Instead, link to a web-archive copy:

  1. Find a copy of the untrustworthy source (or save the page).
  2. Get the web-archive’s URL for the copy.
  3. Use the archive URL as your link.

2. The Nofollow fix

Google introduced the nofollow attribute, (rel="nofollow") in 2005 to prevent comment spam. It’s one of three ways (with “sponsored” and “UGC”: user-generated content) to “qualify your outbound links to Google”.

Use the nofollow value where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

Evolving “nofollow” – new ways to identify the nature of links, Google

Linkless and screenshot

When debunking falsehoods, some reporters and fact-checkers don’t link to the source at all. That kind of “trust us” approach contributes to the depletion of trust in the media, now at an all-time low.

Example of a doctored screenshot, a fake tweet, revealed in a Lead Stories fact-check
Lead Stories fact-check

Others use a screenshot of a fake-news article, another practice I’d discourage for multiple reasons: A screenshot is out-of-context, easy to forge, and hard to verify. It “doesn’t provide the same depth of information or make the source as easy to share and monitor over time,” says Ed McCain, of the Journalism Digital News Archive. “It’s relatively easy to manipulate a screenshot with photo editing software. Compared with the Wayback Machine, a screenshot has a lot less data attached to it, to provide things like time and date captured, the website it came from, and other important contextual information.”

Top-followed links to unreliable sites

Moz API

To estimate the top inbound links — those that most benefit a site’s SEO, the Moz Link Explorer combines several metrics: page authority, domain authority, spam score, and link count. The following tables are results (2021-02) for Infowars, Occupy Democrats, and The Gateway Pundit.

Notice how Infowars’ Domain Authority, which predicts the relative search-ranking potential of a site, nearly equals the DA of the Times and Post. This, in part, is due to mainstream media’s destructive habit of sending visitors and lending legitimacy to unreliable sources, via their direct links (in red).

Infowars

Domain Authority 82
Page Authority 65
Linking Domains 67.1k
Inbound Links Total 12.3m Followed 10.3m
Infowars: Top-followed links
OutletHeadlineAnchor TextDA
redditI am Barack Obama President of the United States -…pulled91
New York TimesUnfiltered Fervor: The Rush to Get Off the Water G…infowars95
Drudge ReportDRUDGE REPORT 2021®infowars75
The Guardian‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s …infowars95
Washington PostWhite House shares doctored video to support punis…wrote95
New York TimesOpinion | The Conspiracy Theory That Says Trump Is…consistently promoted it95
New York TimesOpinion | The Conspiracy Theory That Says Trump Is…consistently promoted it95
New York TimesHow Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S.…a story from the conspira…95
goo.glPlanet.infowars.com[no anchor text]94
The GuardianHow Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an onl…attack as staged by the w…95
NPRConspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Apologizes For Prom…a prepared statement93
NPRConspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Apologizes For Prom…correction section93
bit.lyInfowarsshop.com[no anchor text]94
New York TimesDebunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves Tooinfowars95
New York TimesDebunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves Toofalsely claimed95
New York TimesDebunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves Tooinfowars95
New York TimesFacebook Banned Infowars. Now What?launched95
New York TimesFacebook Banned Infowars. Now What?launched95
WNJoininfowars91
Drudge ReportDRUDGE REPORT 2021®infowars75
Washington PostTime cover: Crying girl in border photo was not se…infowars95
twitterApple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify remove conten…watch alex jones show ale…94
New York TimesA Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theorist a False Tweet and …article on infowars95
New York TimesIn Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspir…an inside job95
New York TimesIn Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspir…fish theory95
New York TimesIn Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspir…an inside job95
New York TimesIn Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspir…fish theory95
New York TimesOpinion | Protesting for the Freedom to Catch the …infowars95
New York TimesTrump’s Far-Right Supporters Turn on Him Over Syri…infowars95
New York TimesTrump’s Far-Right Supporters Turn on Him Over Syri…infowars95
New York TimesInfowars Must Turn Over Internal Documents to Sand…an inside job95
New York TimesInfowars Must Turn Over Internal Documents to Sand…an inside job95
Business InsiderHow did George Soros become the favorite boogeyman…a video piece94
Business InsiderHow did George Soros become the favorite boogeyman…a video piece94
The GuardianSandy Hook father Leonard Pozner on death threats:…fbi says no one killed at…95
The GuardianSandy Hook father Leonard Pozner on death threats:…infowars.com95
Prison PlanetPrison Planet.comon demand73
Prison PlanetPrison Planet.comlisten now73
Prison PlanetPrison Planet.comalex jones radio show73
Prison PlanetPrison Planet.cominfowars73

Domain Authority (DA): Predicts a root domain’s ranking potential relative to the domains in our index.

Page Authority: Predicts a page’s ranking potential in search engines based on an algorithm of link metrics.

Linking Domains: Number of unique external linking domains. Two or more links from the same website are counted as one linking domain.

Inbound Links: Number of unique pages linking to a target. Two or more links from the same page on a website are counted as one link.

Anchor Text: The visible, clickable text in a hyperlink.

Source: Moz Link Explorer (2021-02)

Occupy Democrats

Domain Authority 60
Page Authority 48
Linking Domains 4.2k
Inbound Links Total 173.7m Followed 154.1m
Occupy Democrats: Top-followed links
OutletHeadlineAnchor TextDA
twitterTrump Cyprus Companies Found In Russian Offshore T…trump’s commerce secretar…94
twitterTrump Cyprus Companies Found In Russian Offshore T…investigators just uncove…94
twitterHouston chemical plant lobbied Trump to relax safe…trump’s connection to the…94
BuzzFeedMost Americans Who See Fake News Believe It, New S…fbi director comey just p…93
Washington PostWhy conservatives might be more likely to fall for…she would mace trump95
bit.lyOccupy Democrats: Hero: Obama Blocks Sale Of Sacre…[no anchor text]94
redditDonald Trump ‘not even aware of where intelligence…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
Washington PostNo, the government did not pay for Mitch McConnell…story95
BuzzFeedThis Is How Your Hyperpartisan Political News Gets…reported93
redditJimmy Carter: ‘I would like the last Guinea worm t…http://www.occupydemocrat…91
redditJimmy Carter: ‘I would like the last Guinea worm t…http://www.occupydemocrat…91
redditA final response to the “tell me why Donald Trump …http://occupydemocrats.co…91
twitterNorth Korea Conflict Analysis & Timelinetrump just forgot the lea…94
twitter#TrumpRussiatrump just got caught tak…94
twitterCare to Share Peaceful thoughtsdenmark just trolled trum…94
twitter#TrumpTapes: Donald Trump’s Sexist MTV Reality Pro…trump produced this sexis…94
twitterNorth Korea Conflicttrump just forgot the lea…94
twitter#GopHatesVetsangry veterans just respo…94
twitter#GopHatesVetstrump’s va just announced…94
tumblrt.umblr.com[no anchor text]59
tumblrt.umblr.com/redirect[no anchor text]59
Washington PostThe Russians didn’t swing the 2016 election to Tru…occupy democrats95
redditHillary Clinton Trolls Shut Down Pro-Bernie Sander…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
redditIs there evidence to suggest the firing of James C…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
New York TimesLies, Carly Fiorina and Abortionsome of the images grafte…95
New York TimesLies, Carly Fiorina and Abortionsome of the images grafte…95
New York TimesOpinion | Anti-Semitism at My University, Hidden …flirtations95
NBCDr. Oz’s hydroxychloroquine advocacy seduces Trump…oz also implied reopening…93
The GuardianA win for Trump was a win for bigotry. Here’s how …called for mass protest95
redditGiuliani: Trump asked me how to do a Muslim ban ‘l…busted giuliani’s law fir…91
redditACTION REQUIRED! RECOUNT SUPERVISORS VOLUNTEERS NE…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
redditIntelligence: Russians hacked RNC too, to hurt Cli…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
TimeKareem Abdul-Jabbar: My Very Muslim Christmasjim david adkisson94
TimeKareem Abdul-Jabbar: My Very Muslim Christmasjim david adkisson94
The GuardianWhy we march against Trump: violence against women…350 cities worldwide95
BuzzFeedThe Money Is Rolling In For Liberal Hyperpartisan …occupydemocrats.com93
Los Angeles TimesFacts about fake news’s influence on U.S. election…occupy democrats94
goo.glOccupy Democrats[no anchor text]94
The IndependentThe Ku Klux Klan supports Donald Trump in Nevada c…occupy democrats94
The IndependentThe Ku Klux Klan supports Donald Trump in Nevada c…occupy democrats94
Ameblo.jp退役軍人が米軍を代表して先住民の大虐殺に謝罪する【動画】…http://occupydemocrats.co…92
redditVoter Fraud evidence MEGAthread (post news article…http://occupydemocrats.co…91
redditDid fake news affect the outcome of the US electio…fbi directory comey just …91
redditnikomaru (u/nikomaru)[no anchor text]91
redditInternational Religious Freedom Act now protects a…[no anchor text]91
SnopesDid the Wall GoFundMe Founder Use the Money to Buy…writer90
The Atlantic‘Radical Hope’ and the Political Power of the Open…barack obama93
Huffington PostDonald Trump Is Handling The Transition Exactly Li…was fined94
PolitiFactPolitiFact | Occupy Democratsoccupy democrats’s websit…78
BuzzFeedPeople Think FBI Director James Comey Had A Trump …occupydemocrats.com93

Domain Authority (DA): Predicts a root domain’s ranking potential relative to the domains in our index.

Page Authority: Predicts a page’s ranking potential in search engines based on an algorithm of link metrics.

Linking Domains: Number of unique external linking domains. Two or more links from the same website are counted as one linking domain.

Inbound Links: Number of unique pages linking to a target. Two or more links from the same page on a website are counted as one link.

Anchor Text: The visible, clickable text in a hyperlink.

Source: Moz Link Explorer (2021-02)

The Gateway Pundit

Domain Authority 75
Page Authority 56
Linking Domains 28.5k
Inbound Links Total 5.7m Followed 5.0m
The Gateway Pundit: Top-followed links
OutletHeadlineAnchor TextDA
tumblrt.umblr.com/redirect[no anchor text]59
twitterIs Joe Biden a sexual predator?exclusive former joe bide…94
New York TimesHow Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Studywebsite95
Drudge ReportDRUDGE REPORT 2021®gateway pundit75
New York TimesRight-Wing Media Uses Parkland Shooting as Conspir…a new conspiracy95
Drudge ReportDRUDGE REPORT 2021®gateway pundit75
New York TimesWhite House Grants Press Credentials to a Pro-Trum…hillary clinton’s health95
New York TimesWhite House Grants Press Credentials to a Pro-Trum…a false report95
New York TimesOpinion | Epstein Suicide Conspiracies Show How Ou…suppressing95
The GuardianWere Republicans really the party of civil rights …long history of standing …95
Washington PostCan we just stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s h…wow did hillary clinton j…95
New York TimesPlot to Smear Mueller Unravels as F.B.I. Is Asked …took down the records95
New York TimesHow Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Vall…fury95
New York TimesHow Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Vall…posted95
New York TimesHow Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Vall…bio page95
redditLet’s compile a list of pro-women, pro-minority t…http://www.thegatewaypund…91
Washington PostWhite House urges Roy Moore to concede, as suppor…citing a post95
Washington Post‘I am not a crisis actor’: Florida teens fire back…gateway pundit95
Washington PostNRATV’s Colion Noir to Parkland teens: No one woul…posing for the photos lik…95
New York Times‘You Hate America!’: How the ‘Caravan’ Story Explo…suggested95
The GuardianWhy the far right believes a US civil war will sta…story95
VoxMark Zuckerberg is in denial about how Facebook is…conservative bloggers93
redditWe’re the Krassenstein Brothers — We Uncovered A s…https://www.thegatewaypun…91
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…selected anti trump kids …95
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…it seized upon a single t…95
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…read its headline95
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…the gateway pundit95
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…some sources had reported…95
Washington PostWhat is Gateway Pundit, the conspiracy-hawking si…it seized upon a single t…95
New York TimesSean Spicer Repeats Trump’s Unproven Wiretapping A…thegatewaypundit.com95
CNNFake story about Obamas, Hillary Clinton ensnares…the gateway pundit wrote96
Business InsiderLinks between Turkey and ISIS are now ‘undeniable’…even joe biden94
bit.lyGateway Pundit[no anchor text]94
redditOpen Source Investigations and Evidence-Based Work…the gateway pundit91
redditThe /r/fakenews FAQ : fakenewswikileaks bombshell hilla…91
Washington PostWhen the facts don’t matter, how can democracy su…skewed95
Washington PostDanney Williams is not Bill Clinton’s son, no mat…gateway pundit website pr…95
Washington PostSean Hannity done talking about Seth Rich and Wiki…gateway pundit’s homepage…95
Washington PostGaetz, other Republicans baselessly claim Antifa w…unsupported story95
twitterEcologia das Notícias Falsas: o massacre em Parkla… breaking don’t let the m…94
twitterLincoln Memorial vandalizedawful: lincoln memorial v…94
New York Times8 Suspect Claims From the Trump-Putin News Confere…commentators95
The AtlanticGeorge Soros and the Demonization of Philanthropyantifa93
The GuardianEven rightwing sites call out Trump administration…the top story on gateway …95
The GuardianHow rightwing media is already attacking Florida t…performed95
VoxThe bonkers Seth Rich conspiracy theory, explained…gateway pundit93
VoxJacob Wohl and the plot to smear Robert Mueller, e…took the document down93
VoxHere’s how we know the bonkers conspiracy theory a…suggesting that it’s a de…93
redditGeorgia defends voting system despite 243-percent …https://www.thegatewaypun…91
redditOwner of Ferguson Market convenience store stands …burned down the qt and ta…91

Domain Authority (DA): Predicts a root domain’s ranking potential relative to the domains in our index.

Page Authority: Predicts a page’s ranking potential in search engines based on an algorithm of link metrics.

Linking Domains: Number of unique external linking domains. Two or more links from the same website are counted as one linking domain.

Inbound Links: Number of unique pages linking to a target. Two or more links from the same page on a website are counted as one link.

Anchor Text: The visible, clickable text in a hyperlink.

Source: Moz Link Explorer (2021-02)

What’s your link policy?

A proposition: Publishers should adopt a link policy — guidelines for when and how their writers should link to external sources. (In lieu of a site-wide policy, reporters should create their own link protocols.) In that spirit, here is the:

Iffy.news Link Policy 1.0

We link:

  • To reliable information only.
  • To cite and credit sources, building transparency and trust, and enabling independent verification.
  • To augment understanding, adding related but not critical information.

We don’t link:

  • To faulty or false information directly. We use a web-archive URL instead.
  • To unreliable sources (such as those in the Iffy Index). However, if fact-checkers deem a story true, even if at an otherwise unreliable source, we will link directly — a sort of path to amnesty.

Iffy sought comments from BuzzFeed, NYT, WaPo, and PolitiFact. Only the latter wrote back. Editor-in-Chief Angie Holan replied, “For much of our misinformation work, we do ‘web archive’ the item and link to that. We don’t usually do it for sites that are well known or have a large size and stature, but perhaps we should.”

Editors: Josef Verbanac, Claire Golding, and the RJI team. Fishing hooks from the 1898 book The Faröe Islands by Joseph Russell Jeaffreson. For easy access to web-archive URLs, check the Wayback Workshop.