One of the websites that ended up on a widely shared list of fake news purveyors is run out of a house in Seattle.
Fake news is all the rage. It races across the internet and back while the truth is still pulling on its boots.
Websites that traffic in made-up stories or hyperpartisan slant suddenly have such reach that outgoing President Obama called on Americans this week to be wary of a rising “dust cloud of nonsense.”
One of the motes in this cloud, or at least drifting nearby, is run out of a house in Seattle’s Denny Blaine neighborhood. The founder of a site called Bipartisan Report — self-proclaimed as “the Internet’s largest newspaper” — agreed to talk to me about how click-bait news sites are changing media and American politics.
“We’re a legitimate news-media company,” says Justin Brotman, 34, son of the Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman. “We’re being attacked as ‘fake’ because traditional media is freaked out we can make more money than you, out of our basements.”
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Bipartisan Report runs two or three dozen stories a day, most with truth-stretching headlines crafted to feed red meat to a liberal audience. Examples just from the past few days:
All of these stories are tethered to something true, but exaggerate it or misconstrue it to the point of unrecognizability. Yes, there are questions about the Trump Foundation’s future, but no, 41 AGs did not move to shut it down. Yes, there is a legislator in the state of Georgia who did propose a bill to bar veils in public, but he was the only one (and he pulled the bill). As for Gloria Allred, she is a lawyer who represents some women who say they were groped by Donald Trump, but there was no breaking announcement about that month-old story this week.
“We fall into the click-baity category,” Brotman says.
Eleven writers craft the stories to gin up maximum liberal passion and outrage, as well as shares on Facebook and online clicks.
Brotman started the site in 2012 as a left-wing imitation of Fox News.
“Fox hit on a perfect formula,” Brotman said. “What Fox does is accurate to a point. It’s based on facts and reporting, but at the same time it’s giving people only the parts they want to hear. It leaves out any context or contradictory facts that people don’t want to hear. So it’s not lying, but it’s leaving out critical information.”
The name he chose for his site — Bipartisan Report — is “a middle finger to Fox News” for their slogan about being “fair and balanced,” Brotman says.
What’s remarkable is that the site, which I had never heard of until it showed up this week on a widely shared list of false or click-baity news sources, has more than a million likes on Facebook. According to the web-ranking service Quantcast, its audience is about 10 million unique individuals a month. That puts it somewhere in the top 100 to 200 news websites in the U.S.
Brotman wouldn’t say how much money the site makes, other than it’s “hugely successful” and his young writers “make a really good living.”
He said many of his writers use fake names, due to threats they get. The site has had three stories debunked as false this year by the fact-checking site Snopes — including one that claimed Melania Trump worked as a call girl (he did retract that one). But he bristles at being categorized as “fake news” alongside sites that completely fabricate stories (such as the number one fake news story of the year, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump”).
“If you want to call me Breitbart-like, I’m not offended by that,” he said, referring to the site run by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s top adviser, that runs a steady diet of hard-right slanted stories. “I am trying to be a Breitbart-like channel for the left. It works.”
It sure seems to.
Hyperpartisan news feeds are exploding. A New York Times story about them was headlined: “Inside Facebook’s Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan Political-Media Machine.” There’s nothing wrong with being hyperpartisan, but an analysis of them by BuzzFeed found they publish false information at high rates, and that the more false the story, the more it gets passed around on social networks.
So “only the parts we want to hear” is what we, the people, really crave.
It’s sad, since we built the internet with lofty, communal-sounding goals like “data sharing” and “networking.” Tech evangelists said it would open up and democratize the world. Instead now we’ve carved it up into thousands of belief-confirming information ruts.
It’s like we’ve built a machine for the narrowing of our own minds.