Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot
Bill Ingalls—NASA NASA via Getty Images

Perverse incentives continue to propel conspiracy clickbait.

By Robert Hackett
June 27, 2017

On Monday morning, Facebook’s “trending news” section circulated a story that was, for lack of a better term, rubbish.

Published by CNNNews18, an Indian news network that partners with CNN International, the story was titled “NASA Ready to Declare Alien Life, Says Hacker Group – Anonymous.” While the story was not technically inaccurate—a website branded with the trappings of the hacker-activist group Anonymous did say as much (“NASA says aliens are coming!”)—one must wonder whether it deserved such prominent placement on the social network’s front page, to be blast-injected into every visitor’s news feed.

Before your imagination runs off to deep space, to clear the air, NASA is not on the verge of announcing alien life. “While we’re excited about the latest findings from NASA’s Kepler space observatory,” Laurie Cantillo, a spokesperson at NASA’s planetary science division, emailed to Fortune, “there’s no pending announcement regarding extraterrestrial life.”

The truth may be out there yet, but it’s getting ever harder to find if you get your news from social media. This news post, syndicated from Indian newswire service IANS, appeared alongside more legitimate headlines, such as the bankruptcy of Takata, Japanese maker of faulty airbags, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case regarding President Trump’s travel ban.

Screenshots of Facebook

The “alien life” article also appeared as one of only two items within the trending “science” section; the other involved the successful launch and recovery of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

A host of other news outlets, British tabloids, online Indian outlets, and others, also covered this “news.” “Anonymous hacker claims NASA is on the verge of announcing alien life,” declared the Daily Mail, for example. (To the site’s credit, its coverage of the claim was skeptical, though it’s worth noting that Wikipedia recently banned the Daily Mail from source citations due to its unreliability.)

“NASA is ‘on the verge’ of announcing alien life, says Anonymous,” echoed Independent U.K. in a far less skeptical post.

My criticism of this phenomenon has less to do with accuracy—the headlines are, again, generally true as stated—and more to do with the reinforcement of perverse incentives in today’s media supply chain that causes junk conspiracy clickbait to clog up Facebook feeds.

In this case, the “alien life” story promoted by Facebook linked to a report that covered a video—one that hits all the conspiracy film tropes: eerie music, shaky camera, dimly lit overlaid images of Egyptian pyramids and UFOs—posted to the unofficial YouTube channel for “Anonymous Global,” a group created three years ago and that has a history of publishing what appears to be audience-baiting political propaganda.

“Anonymous Supports Trump!” reads one title posted by the group a year ago. A more recent one features a mash-up of Alex Jones, the controversial host of Info Wars, a far-right outlet often criticized for airing conspiracy theories, doing some ham-handed impersonations of former presidential contender Hillary Clinton taking a spill while various depictions of the cartoon Pepe the Frog meme, an Internet icon appropriated by neo-nationalist alt-right movement, dances to electronic music.

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It’s apparent that the group is interested in producing videos about anything that might get attention. Indeed, that’s just what it achieved with its “alien life” video. The clip, which includes advertising, has garnered more than 1 million views to date, far more than the tens of thousands that the vast majority of the other videos in the group’s feed have received on average. (Fortune has chosen not link to the video here, because it is a clear attempt to garner video views for advertising purposes.)

It would be unfair to lay sole blame on Facebook for boosting this story. First, there’s the group that created the video. Then there’s the Anonymous website that linked to it. Then there are the news outlets that picked it up. Once people shared those stories, Facebook presumably took that as a cue to feature the report, thus creating a positive feedback loop of virality. Blame goes multiple ways.

Shady characters and self-styled hackers have a habit of manipulating others to gain a wider audience for their hoaxes and scams. Some do this to great effect. In choosing to broadcast unfounded claims, media outlets and news aggregators submit to be willingly taken advantage of. Perversely, by playing up the fear, uncertainty, and doubt around hacking as well as wild and unbelievable “hacker” claims, those same outlets and aggregators seek to attract eyeballs. And so bad incentives align.

Asked about the placement of the “alien life” story in its trending box, Facebook offered Fortune a boilerplate response. “[T]opics are determined using a combination of factors including the engagement around the article on Facebook, the engagement around the publisher overall, and whether other articles are linking to it,” said Lindsey Held, a company spokesperson.

Something about this response is unsatisfying. Questionable sources are flooding the online world lately. Troll armies swarm social channels. Fake news crowds out truth. Unscrupulous publishers lure viewers with content that defies sensibility. News outlets should think harder about what merits coverage, and how they might be subject to manipulation in order to further another’s agenda. And if Facebook truly cares about “misinformation” (its term for the world’s fake news problem), then it should start by clamping down on the garbage it promotes.

What is even more troubling than some news outlets garnering attention for bogus stories is Facebook’s role in disseminating and legitimizing them.

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