A fake news story that claimed the legal drinking age in the U.S. would soon change to 25 began appearing on social media early this summer and continues to be shared, reaching by one count more than 9 million pageviews.
The viral hoax, so pervasive that the website Snopes and other media wrote stories to debunk it, was produced through Nipsys News, a tool that lets users write short stories and publish them online. The articles even include a real-looking newspaper or magazine logo. The only indicator that the story is a hoax is a popup window featuring a Leonardo DiCaprio GIF — for readers who stay on the page at least 7 seconds.
Because our fact-checking project deals with the veracity of news and how the social spread of misinformation can create a misinformed culture, we were interested in talking with the people behind the fake news site. We tracked down the Nipsys News founders, who live in Tbilisi in the country of Georgia. They are web developers Ilia Daraselia and Irakli “K.,” who asked to be identified by only his first name and last initial. They answered our questions jointly by email.
You’re a web design and development company. How did you get into the business of creating a platform for people to write and publish their own fake news?
Daraselia and K: The company was established one year ago as a web design, web development and 360° online marketing agency, focused on small- and medium-size projects. During that year we successfully developed several projects for our clients. As time passed, we were thinking of new ideas where we could apply our knowledge and experience. Nipsys News is just one of the projects we are working on and it happened to become the first one we launched in mid-June this year.
There are some people who believe a platform that helps people create fake news adds to the misinformation on the web. Facebook has even started labeling some fake content. What do you think the ethical concerns are?
Daraselia and K: We believe that giving people the freedom of expression is the right thing to do. We do realize that this might lead to some people being confused, but we don’t agree that our website adds misinformation on the web. We created our service for purely entertainment purposes and we believe that it serves those purposes.
There are thousands of web services that can be used for used for creating misleading content, even Facebook and YouTube can be used for that. But this does not mean that they should be strictly censored.
People who create within the Internet as a platform are responsible for what they do.
The World Wide Web is the invention with the biggest impact on people’s lives since the printing press. The Internet gave people a liberal environment to build whatever is imaginable and deliver it to billions of users across the planet, and it gave people access to the world’s information at a finger-long distance. The whole point of the Internet is in its openness and accessibility where everyone is allowed to do whatever they want. The Internet, as a no-rules super-platform, consists of millions of sub-platforms with their own rules that are legit only within the borders of those systems.
When we were building Nipsys News we wanted to give people as much freedom as possible to mimic the environment Internet created for us. People who create within the Internet as a platform are responsible for what they do. The same can be said for Nipsys News.
Some of the fake news stories could be considered libelous (people accused of murder, drug use, etc.) Celebrities are a target, too. Have you been sued or threatened with a lawsuit?
Daraselia and K: As we state in our terms and conditions, we take no responsibility for the content created by users. However, these kinds of articles [accusations of murder, drug use, etc.] actually go against our terms and conditions. We monitor the articles created at our website to make sure that they comply with our terms and conditions. However, given the amount of articles created daily, sometimes some questionable articles might escape our revision.
Sometimes users write us asking to remove certain articles that are abusive to them. In other cases, users ask us to remove articles created by them about other people. The reasons vary, sometimes they say they created those stories without realizing that they would become open to general public, other times they say that they tried to create a lighthearted joke, but the subject(s) of the joke didn’t take it that well, etc. In all those cases we readily remove the articles.
A few times we were threatened with a lawsuit if we didn’t remove some articles, but since we are so open and cooperate so readily, it never went further than that. Celebrities’ names are frequently mentioned even on real websites or rumor websites in some very ridiculous contexts. We don’t find articles about celebrities at our website to be disturbing, since celebrities are already public figures and since we expressly declare that the story is a joke. Of course, if we receive any complaint on this kind of story we would consider taking it down.
When readers click on the fake news story, there’s a 7-second delay before a pop-up window informs them: “We are sorry, but you were tricked!” How did you decide on 7 seconds, and are you really sorry?
Daraselia and K: We tested several time intervals with a focus group and decided to stick with the 7-second one. This time is long enough to let the readers read the body of the article and at the same time make sure that all the readers will actually see the “We are sorry, but you were tricked!” message and therefore realize that what they just read was a joke.
Thank you for the second question. :) Actually we are. We want to say sorry to all those users who were tricked with our fake news articles and did not take it easy. Some of the users actually get frustrated enough to spend their time writing us hatred messages just because they saw a joke instead of a real story they were going to read. We never intended to hurt anybody’s feelings and we think this “We are sorry, but you were tricked!” message is something we could do for those who did not like the joke.
Many publishers are having a difficult time these days making money from real news. How do you make money from fake news?
Daraselia and K: In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether news is fake or real. It is important to provide the content that interests users. If the users are interested enough to consume this content and then spread the word about it, the reach will go far beyond the original audience.
Also, we consider it important to have website optimized for all kinds of devices. Nowadays there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of kinds of devices from which users connect to the internet and this number will only grow. Publishers need to make sure that their website performs well across different devices (desktop, mobile, tablet, etc.). User experience is almost as important as the content of a website.
Based on your experience, can you give journalists and other readers some tips on how to quickly spot a fake news story? Are massive misspellings a clue?
Daraselia and K: We don’t really agree that the misspellings in the text could indicate whether the news is real or fake. We read various newspapers and blogs and sometimes there are some misspellings there, but this does not mean that the information provided there is fake. For instance, as you might already know, even The New York Times had a typo on its front page recently.
For spotting a fake news story, it depends on the creativity of creators of those fake stories. In the case of our website, if a user creates a story with a title and a picture that would be credible enough, it might be quite difficult for other users to say whether the news is fake or real before visiting our website. The other thing is the credibility of the information itself. On our website we expressly state that the news stories are fake, that they are just jokes. But some websites try to sell absolutely ridiculous information as a real story.
We just advise readers to check if the information from the article can be found in other sources as well. Don’t trust just one source.