By now you’ve probably heard about the incident with Logan Paul, the YouTube star who posted a video about his visit to Aokigahara, the so-called “suicide forest” near Mt. Fuji where he discovered the body of a suicide victim.
You’ve probably also heard about the backlash. He’s received widespread criticism for his insensitivity.
However, he’s not the first to post such an insensitive video on the Internet. Nor will he be the last. Just a cursory glance through YouTube or Facebook shows that more than ever, people are doing stupid, insensitive and sometimes dangerous stunts just to gain Internet popularity.
But this problem isn’t confined to the realm of reckless antics and entertainment. I think most of us can agree that watching videos of people pranking each other or just horsing around is relatively harmless. Relatively dumb and relatively mindless, too, but harmless overall.
The problem, then, is that this recklessness has found its way into news media.
You know what I’m talking about: fake news. It seems that more and more, fake information is being peddled around, and sadly, the biggest purveyor of this dubious information has been the Internet.
Now, both dumb videos and fake news are clear problems. Sometimes reckless antics become fatal. Sometimes fake news can change the course of democracy. (I’m not saying that it did, but in the case of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it could have been a factor.)
And the Internet giants have reacted. Facebook has been working on systems that allow people to flag fake news. Google has started donating money in order to support companies that fact-check fake news.
But neither of these solutions actual solve one of the root problems, which is this: why do people even write/share fake news? And why do people keep trying to get attention via doing outrageous things on the Internet?
I think that the root problem is advertising.
While advertising has been around far longer than the Internet (with the earliest confirmed ads being from China), there can be no argument that the Internet has helped it grow exponentially.
The thing about advertising, as most people know, is that advertisers like to place their ads wherever the largest number of their target audience will see them (and for the lowest possible cost). Historically, that meant sticking posters in public forums, running ad campaigns in newspapers and magazines, or of course, making video clips for television.
On the Internet, then, advertisers gravitate towards sites with the most traffic. And they pay these websites to run their ads. (In other words, they are paying for eyeballs.)
Now this model isn’t exactly a problem. Advertising has supported a great many newspapers over the centuries, and on the Internet, it’s a good thing that individual creators can get financial renumeration for their work.
The problem is when the model is exploited by individuals just trying to earn easy money.
One of the essential requirement that advertisers demand before they pay you to run their ads on your site is that you have substantial traffic. It doesn’t really matter to them how you got your traffic.
And the easiest way to gain followers and traffic, besides sharing videos of your pet cat or by displaying actual talent, is to do something utterly stupid, outrageous and reckless.
Or, you could also write fake news.
And once you’ve gotten enough views/shares, in comes advertising revenue.
This creates a vicious cycle. It encourages those who want to get rich quickly to do outrageous (and sometimes illegal) things to get followers, which in turn attracts advertisers, which in turn encourages more people to do the same.
In the case of fake news, this was a huge issue in the recent past, with apparently dozens of Macedonian youth spreading outrageous fake news on their websites pertaining to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election just so they could earn advertising revenue as their fabricated (and often plagiarised) articles circulated the net.
It’s come to a point that in this modern day and age, anything can be justified on the Internet as long as there’s advertising revenue to earn. Who cares if you’re racist? Who cares if your website peddles plagiarised content? Who cares if the “advice” you post on your food blog is not only idiotic but dangerous? As long as advertisers are there to fund you, you’re fine. They need to reach an audience. You need money.
Thus, perfect mutualism.
As I said earlier, while Facebook and Google are working to flag fake news, they’re not striking at the heart of the problem. They’re working on a band-aid solution.
A better solution is to find a way to discourage people from making fake news. The truth is that while there’s always going to be nuts who post idiotic things on the Internet because they’re nuts, the rest are following suit because there’s money to be made in doing idiotic things like sharing fake news or filming dead bodies.
And the way to discourage it is to cut their advertising revenue completely.
In the past, advertisers were a lot more aware of where their advertisements were going and who their advertisements were funding. The problem nowadays is that many advertisers go through middlemen such as Google’s AdSense, and thus don’t really know the full extent of who their advertising dollars are supporting and where their ads are showing up.
And so, in a sense, we can’t really blame advertisers themselves. The system itself is flawed.
And that system belongs to Google.
It looks to me that Google can do a lot more to combat fake news than just funding fact-checking organisations. They don’t need to promote their practically useless band-aid solution. They can cut fake news off at the roots by removing their advertising revenue from such sites.