An opinion piece recently published in the Guardian describes a PhD student who ran out of funding and started writing fake news for money. It started with writing fake Amazon reviews and product descriptions of perfume, but ultimately descended into pushing emotionally manipulative “extreme right-wing” misinformation to fund luxury consumption and travels.
It is a total corruption of reason, filled to the brim with bizarre rationalizations, from victim blaming and minimization to outright logical fallacies and biases. Below is a point-by-point skeptical analysis of the entire opinion piece, from start to finish.
How did it all start?
A lot of people think that fake news writers are like evil cartoon villains who start writing fake content online just to make money from ads. People who just want to see the world burn. To some extend, this might fit some individuals, but the person who wrote this experience piece diverges substantially from this narrative. The writer claims to be a is a young person with left-leaning beliefs who is finishing up a liberal arts PhD in London. When this experience article was written, the PhD student has been creating articles for U. S. far-right websites for about a year.
The student did not start with writing far-right fake news. Instead, it all started with the funding for the PhD running out and being under pressure to finish up the PhD. The justification at this stage is that the student needed money for rent and basically to survive. They found work through different websites that enabled writers to come into contact with clients and build up a credibility via client reviews.
The feeling from reading the experience article is that there is a massive amount of work that people can get paid for on these websites: fake Amazon reviews for sex toys and printers, product descriptions, ghost-writing entire books and so on. A lucrative market for those who know how to write persuasive content. Yet, as we shall see, this comes with a price.
Descending into the fake news swamp
The student considered the first writing tasks to be “pretty shady”. They involved producing fraudulent reviews on Amazon and product descriptions for perfumes. This can be considered the first step. Going from writing legitimate things like the PhD thesis or other serious writing jobs to writing deceptive contents like fake reviews. This is the first compromise of reason and also opened up for the next step. One client that the student wrote for brokered contact with another person who ran websites focused on news, reviews and commentary about guns. This can be considered to be very similar to the way that standard business contacts work, but for more shadier industries.
The way the gun website worked was to write content about guns to increase the click-through rate of Amazon affiliate links. The more readers bought guns via their Amazon links, the more the website made. Presumably, there were also ads on this gun website, although the story does not tell. This is the next step in the process. Going from writing content that is not socially or politically controversial, such as descriptions of perfume products or Amazon reviews, to writing about guns. This is a topic that has spurred a lot of controversy for many decades. The student admits to never having seen or used a gun, which is yet another step in the process. Writing about things and claim you have deep knowledge about when you, in fact, do not.
The sweet allure of money
It is also clear that it is here that the allure of money came in. While the student wrote for the gun website, the income tripled as the website grew. They ended up writing for 15 hours a week (so a little more than ~2 hours per day) and getting paid 2400 GBP (~3400 USD) per month. This is comparable the income of a traditional job, as oppose to something that just supplements the income. If the student had been doing 45 hour week, this would mean over 10 000 USD per month before taxes (assuming that taxes are actually being paid).
The student points out that he or she does not have any contract or promise on ongoing work, but that is probably a way to rationalize the income. With the skills and portfolio that the student has developed, there would be no difficulty in finding work. As the student argued earlier in the article, there is a ton of work available.
The next step in the transition occurred when they wanted to manipulate Google search engine rankings by writing articles for other, more extreme, websites and sneakily including a link in their article. To make this work, the student had to write content that matched those websites. It is here where the cognitive dissonance comes in: the student writes that bump stocks (that increases the firing rate of semi-automatic weapons) should not be banned and complains about the left, while the student in reality holds opposite positions. The student clearly points out that they strongly disagrees with the content that they write for those more extreme websites and “often despair at the ignorance on display”.
Cognitive dissonance and rationalizations
There is still some resistance, though. They admit to once having written for a racist website, and that was the only time they questioned what they were doing. Notice that this means that the student did not question anything up to this point. Over time, the boundaries are shifting for this person. The most candid admission comes in the middle of the article and it is a shocking admission:
But I don’t have a moral problem with it. I wish I had some snappy argument about why what I’m doing is not wrong. I’m furthering ignorance, certainly, and perhaps contributing to an atmosphere of hatred. But I don’t think people have died as a result of my work. Perhaps I am more nihilistic than most, but in the end, it’s a job and it pays well.
The student admits to doing things that are wrong, that they are furthering ignorance and an atmosphere of hatred. Yet, they insist that they have no problem with it and that it is just a job. They also admit that it pays very well, which is probably a key admission that the money triumphs reason for this person. Perhaps the most intriguing rationalization is that the student claims that he or she does not think that any person has died because of what the student is doing. But does anyone have to die before the student will admit that what he or she is doing is substantially detrimental to the world?
By the way, on the balance of probabilities, it is entirely plausible that their writings have lead the the death of someone. There are many gun accidents, homicides and suicides in the U. S. per year, and more guns means more of this. BBC reports that, in 2015, there were 372 mass shootings in the U. S. that killed 475 people and wounded 1870, 64 school shootings, a total of 13 286 gun deaths and 26 819. These figures do not include suicides.
The rationalizations continue:
I have never made up a statistic, invented a story, or been racist. I think I would refuse to do so. I see my role as providing an extreme right-wing interpretation of breaking news. Though I do not believe the stories I write, I don’t count this as lying.
The student is intentionally pushing out misinformation for money. How is that not lying? It is not crucial that no statistics or stories have been entirely made up. What matters is that reality is being intentionally and severely skewed for money. This is being rationalized as “extreme right-wing interpretation”. But if it is extreme, it is not merely an interpretation among others. It is a substantial distortion.
I suppose the articles I write would be regarded as fake news. Though that has got a lot of attention recently, I think it is merely a new term for an old phenomenon. This type of ideologically driven journalism pre-dates the internet and perhaps even the printing press: what were Der Stürmer, Pravda and Trajan’s Column, if not fake news?
At least the student admits that he or she is producing fake news. However, the rationalizations do not stop. The student insists that other people are doing it too and that fake news have been a thing in the past. But just because a Nazi publication like Der Stürmer pushed fake news does not justify that the student does it. That would be an absurd claim to make.
Ultimately, I feel that it is the responsibility of individuals to assess critically everything they read: my articles are designed to sell gun accessories; newspaper articles are designed to sell newspapers. I don’t see that much difference between the two.
This is classic victim-blaming. The fake news pusher does not want to take full responsibility and instead blames the people who are exposed to the fake news content. If they buy into it, the argument goes, it is their own fault for not thinking critically. However, this does not take into account that not everyone has had the same education or experience to be able to accurately distinguish real from fake content, especially when fake content is being written to appear legitimate and also manipulate people emotionally.
The difference, of course, is that the student is intentionally pushing out fake content, while established newspapers generally do not do this. Sure, newspapers can sometimes be wrong and individual journalists can be corrupt, but it is not the same at all.
Finally, the real motivation becomes even more explicit:
My friends know what I do for a living, and find it amusing. There is an absurd humour in a young(ish), left(ish), British arts student pretending to be a far-right, middle-aged, American gun enthusiast. They recognise that my earnings give me the freedom to live and work where I want.
I’ll continue to work for this client for at least another six months, by which time I will have finished my PhD and saved enough to go travelling. Then I’ll get my first proper job in five years. If my rate continues to increase, though, I’ll continue to write for this client. It’s easy money.
Once you truly understand the impact of online misinformation, from encouraging people to avoid taking HIV medication to forcing children to drink bleach, the “absurd humor” stuck in your throat. So the rationalization has moved from needing the money to survive to having earnings to give the “freedom to live and work where” he or she wants. These are not the same at all.
It is also clear that this is not a remorseful article written after the student had finished writing fake news and got out of the industry. Quite the opposite: he or she intends to continue for “at least another six months” to not only finish the PhD, but also “go travelling”. Thus, the goalposts have shifted massively, from needing the money to survive, to needing the money to live and work where he or she wants, to wanting it to travel to get even more money from raises because it is easy money. The corruption of reason is complete.
What can we learn from this?
It is clear that the transition is gradual. Very few people probably start writing the most extreme fake news content that is maximally emotionally manipulate for money. In this case, it started with needing another source of money to finish an important PhD in order to get a “real” job and avoiding getting evicted. At this point, the student wrote fake Amazon reviews and product descriptions for perfumes.
This was easy to rationalize, because those have very little impact on intellectual or societal issues. Then it transitioned into gun reviews and content to get money via Amazon affiliate links by virtue of the contacts that the student had gotten from previous work and the money increased. Then, it involved writing fake news and emotionally manipulative content to boost the search engine rankings of those gun review websites.
The financially payout increased yet again and now it was not a matter of just paying for rent, but being able to live and work anywhere or even going on travels.
This produced substantial cognitive dissonance, because the student produced material that he or she strongly disagreed with. Yet, the money was probably so good and enabled the student to reach his or her goal of finishing a PhD and getting money for luxury expenses like travels.
This produced lots of rationalizations, from blaming the victim for falling for the misinformation, minimizing their own role, stating that they at least have not written content that have killed people, that they have not written overtly racist content, that people have published fake news in the past, that they are only providing “an extreme right-wing interpretation”, that their friends find it amusing, that it is “easy money” and so on.
It is a fundamental and total corruption of reason.