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What Is Fake News? How To Navigate The Media Landscape

You can’t get on social media these days without hearing about the fake news.

But what do you really need to know about it? How big a concern is it?

Let’s get right to it. Here are 10 true facts about fake news:

1. Fake news is recent: The term ‘fake news’ only really took off during the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Image: Google Trends

Fake news itself isn’t new, of course – its existed for as long as people have been around.

But it’s definitely become a whole new animal in the 2016 election.

It used to be called terms like ‘hoax’, ‘propaganda’ or ‘misinformation’, ‘rumors’, ‘lies’, ‘BS’ and so on.

The Wikipedia page for Fake News was only created on Jan 17th 2017, just 3 days before Trump’s inauguration, and 6 days after his earliest tweet that uses the phrase.

The term got so popular that PolitiFact named Fake News its 2016 Lie of the Year.

According to search analytics tool Ahrefs, “fake news” now has a monthly search volume of 78,000 queries.


You can also tell from the historical data that searches for “fake news” only started in November 2016.

The term ‘fake news’ has Presidential origins: Donald Trump single-handedly coined and popularized the term.

Observe the use of ALL CAPS for emphasis. Consistent!

His constant repetition of the term helps him coach his followers to do the same.

He introduced the phrase to malign mainstream news organizations such as the ‘failing’ New York Times, or CNN.

So while hoaxes and misinformation have always been around, the Fake News phenomenon is eroding public trust in all media.

2. Fake news sites are popular: Dozens are among the top 1,000 most visited sites in the US – more popular than senate.gov

Consider how fake news sites are now legitimate subjects of actual news stories. This means real news sites are linking to fake news sites in their stories.

When you get a link from an authoritative news site, Google ‘thinks more highly’ of your site, and you get more search traffic.

How does this play out for a fake news site? Let’s look at a specific example: OccupyDemocrats.com.

occupydemocrats-screenshotFirst let’s look at the Alexa rank, which is a measure of popularity. Google, for example, has an Alexa rank of 1, because it’s the most visited site in the world.

OccupyDemocrats.com had an Alexa rank of around 13,000 and is now at 3,282. It’s the 603rd most visited site in the US. (For context, Senate.gov is ranked 758.)

What happened in October 2016?

They got a backlink from the New York Times, among multiple other news sites:


The trend seems clear – when the traditional media talks about fake news sites, the sites get more popular.


3. Fake news sites are numerous: There are at least 900 known fake news sites, and likely thousands more bubbling under the radar.

False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources‘ is a comprehensive list compiled by Dr. Melissa Zimdars (Assistant Prof in comm/media studies, Ph.D. from the University of Iowa).

The list contains over 900 sources that are disputed, with more than 100 more suggested sites waiting to be added.

The list goes on for 30 more pages.

After eliminating ‘satire’, ‘unknowns’ and ‘biased’, we’re still left with over 500 sources that are ‘unreliable’, ‘junk science’.

Isolate ‘fake’, and we’re still left with over 150 examples of fake news sites.

You can also check out Fake News Watch for more examples.

4. Fake news sites are smart: They make sure to publish actual news too.

A constant stream of falsehoods smells fishy after a while.

By publishing some actual news, or ‘obviously fake’ satire, these sites avoid being pigeonholed as barefaced liars.

Fake news peddlers today are clever enough to lull their readers into a false sense of complacency before hitting them with the fake stuff.

Image: Buzzfeed News – Partisan FB pages analysis

Interestingly, a lot of the content being shared on these sites don’t have any news at all.

Rather, they’re “Like and Share!” posts, meant to get engagement and to get people invested in participating in the page.

5. Fake news is more engaging: It actually outperformed mainstream news as Election Day approached

Image: BuzzFeed News

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

You can check out their data here.

6. Practically all the top ‘fake news’ headlines in 2016  were optimized for outrage.

“The people wanted to hear this. So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then … our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire.” – Jestin Coler, NationalReport.net, Disinfomedia [source]


Other headlines that performed well included:

  1. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
  2. FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide
  3. Ireland Is Now Officially Accepting Trump Refugees From America

Do you notice anything about the headlines? They’re all superbly designed to confirm the pre-existing biases of one in-group or another.

7. Many fake news sites dearly depend on Facebook – some for almost 80% of their traffic.

Image: Qz

Here’s a list of some of the top Facebook Pages known to have shared false or misleading news:

  1. Anonymous – 6,850,000 Likes
  2. Occupy Democrats – 5,800,000 Likes
  3. The Other 98% – 4,560,000 Likes
  4. Right Wing News – 3,500,000 Likes (since removed)
  5. Freedom Daily – 1,800,000 Likes
  6. US Uncut – 1,500,000 Likes (since removed)
  7. Addicting Info – 1,250,000 Likes
  8. Bipartisan Report –1,180,000 Likes
  9. InfoWars – 711,000 Likes (since removed)
  10. Patriotic Folks – 685,000 Likes (since removed)

Extensive data about the volume of social traffic top sites get through Facebook can be found in this table on SimilarWeb.

8. Fake news pays lucratively – as much as $27,000 (!!!) in a month

Macedonian teenagers can make $4,000 – $5,000 a month, BuzzFeed reported. (Most Macedonians earn less than $400/month.)

There are over 150 news-related domains registered out of Velles, Macedonia. There’s even a wider economy around this with entrepreneurs sell classes on how to set up websites and promote them on Facebook.


Liberty Writers News, a two-person site operating out of a house in the San Francisco Bay Area, generates an income of between $10,000 and $40,000 a month from banks of ads that run along the side and bottom of every story. [source]

Some interesting facts:

  • 700,000 daily visitors
  • 95% of traffic is from Facebook (1.2m likes)
    • Can extend their reach to over 8m viewers by sharing stories with like-minded Facebook pages.
  • Spend $3,000 a month on FB promotions, which doubles their traffic.
  • They also end some stories with enthusiastic cries to “Share this right now! Let’s beat the liberal media to it. Share, share, share it all over Facebook.”

9. Fake news sites make their money by using 3rd party advertising tools such as Outbrain or Taboola.

An example of ads delivered via the Outbrain ad distribution network

One advertising executive, provided with a list of the fake sites by BuzzFeed News, found three that were making money through the industry’s automated auction markets. The average cost per thousand ad views on these sites, he said, is $1.25. For comparison sake, low-tier ad space would run around 50 cents, while premium is about $2. “By no means are they getting premium [prices], but they’re also not getting bargain basement,” the advertising executive said. Six of the sites, the executive added, were on various buyer blacklists. – Buzzfeed News

How much money do these ad networks payout?

According to MonetizePros,

  1. The cost-per-click ranges from $0.15 to $0.30.
  2. Click rates range from 0.50% to 0.75%.

From that, we can come up with some revenue estimates:

$0.15 CPC x 0.50% CTR x 50% revenue share = $0.37 per thousand pageviews to publishers.

Going back to some of the numbers we got from the reporting earlier: if Liberty Writers News get 700,000 visits a day, that’s 700,000 * $0.37/1000 = $259/day, or $7,770/month.

Sounds about right!

Examples of services that provide ads placements include AdbladeAdaraXandrContent.adGoogle AdSenseOutbrainRevcontent, Taboola and ZergNet.

But wait, there’s more:

“There are literally hundreds of ad networks. Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google was cracking down — hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.” – Jestin Coler

10. Live by FB and Google, die by FB and Google – The average lifespan of a fake news site seems to be ~250 days.

ConservativeState.com’s Alexa rank

Fake news sites DO die out if they start to get punished by Facebook and Google.

Take ConservativeState.com, for example. It seems to have been launched around October or November 2016.


It had a moment of glory right around the election season… but then it got lots of attention after being reported on by sites like BuzzFeed.

And this is how the site looks now – presumably after having its AdSense removed.


A quick Twitter search reveals hundreds (if not thousands) of tweets sharing the links to the post. The sheer volume can be quite breathtaking:

Examples of dead news sites include:

  • bvanews.com
  • dailypolitics.info
  • usadailypolitics.com
  • 365usanews.com

All of these sites were featured in news articles about fake news, such as this one.

However, fake news peddlers are not deterred. They’ve simply moved on to the next thing:

“I could have 100 domains set up in a week, and are they going to stop every one of those? Are they now going to read content from every site and determine which ones are true and which ones are selling you a lie? I don’t see that happening. That’s not the way that the internet works. ” – Jestin Coler, to BuzzFeed News

Conclusion: Fake news is a big, sticky problem that isn’t going away any time soon

“It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” – President Thomas Jefferson, to aspiring newspaperman John Norvell, 1807

Multiple studies suggest that fake news has damaged citizens’ trust in ALL available media.


A recent study carried out by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education assessed more than 7,800 responses from middle school, high school and college students in 12 US states on their ability to assess information sources.

Researchers were “shocked” by students’ “stunning and dismaying consistency” to evaluate information at even as basic a level as distinguishing advertisements from articles.

We know that people have limited attention spans, and face tremendous information overload. Few people ever take the time and energy to carefully examine every piece of news that comes their way.

Google and Facebook have begun to try and clamp down on fake news through a series of measures, but it’s so cheap and easy to start new fake news sites that people are going to keep doing it.

As Dr Zimdars wrote, “made up stories are only part of the problem“. And it’s only going to get worse.


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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