In the age of the platform, how can anybody be sure that the news they read is true?
Last week, lies, hoaxes, and rumors prevailed on Facebook and Google following the mass murder in Las Vegas. The sites promoted stories claiming that the killer was a Rachel Maddow fan, or an ISIS follower—both false. As gatekeepers of valuable information, the platforms failed, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote. This was a familiar story. After the 2016 election, Russian propaganda and false memes on Facebook elevated “fake news” in the national lexicon. Today, with two-thirds of Americans getting their news from editor-free social media sites, the veracity of news stories is, itself, a major news story.
For Facebook and Google, the rise of misinformation is a Frankenstein monster unleashed by their own technology. How can these companies rein in their dangerous creation? The briefest and most honest answer today is it won’t be easy. But some key lessons of the intractability of bad information, and how to defeat it, dwell in the story of one of America’s first major media hoaxes, nearly 200 years ago.
A new era of the news industry began September 1833, when a 23-year-old named Benjamin Day founded the New York Sun. Newspapers of the time were an elite product, selling at the relatively high price of 6 cents. Day’s innovation was to slash the price to a penny, attracting a larger readership of working class readers, and then (this was the genius part) to sell those customers to advertisers. In other words, the readers—long before the era of cookies and tracking and data collection—became the product. The penny press, like the social network, was a new information technology relying almost entirely on advertising, revolutionizing the news business.