Unreliable News Sites Attack List of Unreliable News Sites

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Last week Melissa Zimdars started keeping a list of popular but unreliable news sites — some she’d encountered on her own Facebook feed, others she’d searched for, still others drawn from suggestions by friends and colleagues. The plan was to show the list to students in her mass-communication classes at Merrimack College as an aid in teaching media literacy.

…In its current form, the document contains tips for analyzing news sources and a roster of over 100 websites that report unreliable and misleading content. Ms. Zimdars has separated those sites into four categories. Sites in the first category use “decontextualized or dubious information” and anger to generate traffic on social media. Those in the second share misleading or unreliable information. Sites in the third category use clickbait-style headlines or social-media descriptions, and those in the fourth report false news for the purpose of humor or satire.

Zimdars made the public following the controversy over whether fake news appearing on Facebook had affected the US election result: one such fake news creator, a certain Paul Horner, claims that he was responsible for Trump’s victory, and he says that he makes $10,000 a month from AdSense.

Compiling a list of fake sites must of course come with some methodological difficulties, which one writer at Reason argues are insurmountable. There isn’t any argument over the nature of satire sites such the Onion and Newsbiscuit (and my own favourite, the Babylon Bee), or over sites that concoct completely fraudulent stories (such as the Christian Times, discussed recently here), but when it comes to sites that are concerned with real events, at what point does having a particular perspective or style become a distorting lens that amounts to unreliability – or even bad faith?

It should be noted that Zimdars’ list is a rough-and-ready informal guide, and she doesn’t claim that it represents the findings of a research project. She’s also aware of the problems of categorisation:

…Some sources not yet included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.

This is all very reasonable, and she presents her advice in a way that is creditable and fair-minded. Zimdar’s academic position is on the feminist left, but her list is even-handed and she explicitly commends a list of fake liberal news-sites compiled by longtime friend of this blog Ed Brayton.

Nevertheless, some conservative sites on the list are crying foul –  and responding with personalised attacks. WND (WorldNetDaily) – the site that inspired and guided Trump’s birtherism – wants its readers to bombard Zimdars and her employer with emails and phone calls, while Breitbart – now “the closest thing to a state-owned media entity” in the US, according to a recent piece in Fortune – whines that it is being targeted “for destruction”. That would be the same Breitbart that was unconcerned when its tech editor – Milo Yannopoulos – posted fabricated Twitter screenshots that he attributed to the actress Leslie Jones.

Sadly, Zimdars has now upped her privacy settings in the wake of the furore – understandably given the Twitchfork, but it means that her less reasonable critics are likely to sniff blood.

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