April 5, 2017 Last Updated 10:24 am

Regarding ‘fake news’ the question is not ‘what’ that needs to be looked at, but ‘who’

The Internet is flooded with content, some of questionable origins. But many news organizations ignore the huge amount of content their readers are submitting via comments, overwhelming their own reporting

I admit that I sometimes can spend hours pouring through the posts of some Twitter members, looking for patterns, attempting to – with few tools provided by Twitter – determine whether the account holder is a real person, a bot, or something else. It is frustrating, but it gets to the real issue of so-called fake news, it is not the content itself that we should be looking at, but who it is posting it. The real story is found only there.

A good example of this is seen in the latest Tweet from the baseball embarrassment Curt Schilling. Today he posted that “Twitter would not allow me to post the link to this article, so I SS it and posting it here.”

The post has drawn quite a number of supporters, blasting Twitter and supporting Schilling’s point that climate change is a hoax. Who are these people (and who are those criticizing Schilling in replies)?

For the most part, they are Twitter account holders with few followers, with minimal profiles, and no way to trace if the comment is coming from a real person. Even those critical of Schilling’s latest rant are of suspect origin.

What happens when all these comments are deleted? Suddenly a crazy tweet falls into oblivion. Like the crazy person on the street corner, most will just ignore.

But with hundreds of replies, suddenly there is reinforcement – of whatever position you want to take. No analysis need be done, you can simply pile on mindlessly.


Twitter has had this problem for a long time, and the management team is not in a big hurry to improve the situation. More tweets, more accounts, means more chances to monetize Twitter, which is struggling to find a business model.

But that situation is similar to what can be seen at newspaper websites (and many magazines). Comment systems are poor at helping readers identify who is talking, who is dominating a thread. I usually point to The Washington Post as the worst of the worst. Their comments sections are lightly moderated, poorly designed to provide other readers any information, and the paper has had its head in the sand for a while.

I have called the Post the most popular alt-right website besides Breitbart News. Not because the reporting is bad, or it is editorially positioned to the far right, but because its comment threads are often that way. And how much total content is created by the Post versus its readers?

A big story such as the one leading the home page now, on Bill O’Reilly, is running around 1200 words. But the reader comments are already well over 10,000 words. This is typical of big stories.


When TNM was publishing its politics and the media website last summer, I was able to look very deeply at the issue of comments on news sites and saw an interesting pattern. At major news sites such as the NYT and Post, there was a huge disconnect between the content published by the site’s journalists and the underlying content being published by “readers” – except it was (and is) impossible to know who these contributors are, while the journalists are easily knowable, trackable.

Many journalists have expressed unease at the idea that giant tech companies like Google or Facebook might find themselves as arbiters of what is real news and what is fake. After all, they have their interests, too.

But who is real and who is not, who is hiding behind anonymity and who is willing to stand behind their content is more easily policed through the way we set up our comment systems. There many ways a publisher can tweak their systems, ranging from a paywall, registration, moderation, to threading responses, to posting locations (through IP addresses). All, some or none of these can be implemented at the discretion of the publisher… if they want to.

Most choose not to for very selfish reasons: the web traffic being brought in by bots, trolls and political operatives is proving lucrative. News sites are in denial, but I won’t take their calls for ending the proliferation of fake news, or the News Media Alliance’s own calls for it, until there is an admission that the biggest publishers of fake news may well be those calling for its control.

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