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Conservatives swallow this story whole! You won’t believe what happens next!!!

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The Washington Post is rolling up its short-lived “What was fake on the Internet this week” column because … I think they failed to comprehend the power of confirmation bias.

Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research, it’s now often as simple as clicking around for an “about” or “disclaimer” page. And where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

I don’t think anything has really changed. People – even intelligent, educated people – have always believed what they want to believe, and have an awesome capacity to believe completely contradictory things at the same time, especially if they gain something by it. Just ask Mr. Moist von Lipwig. Or Mr. Glenn Beck. Or Mr. Martin Shkreli. Oh you can’t, he’s in jail. Heh. (He’s out on bail and out of jail and that’s the way it goes.)

And Dagon knows, people have always been dicks, which is why the yellow press will always be with us.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

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Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.

Works great for presidential candidates too!

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

True. But it could be that I believe this statement because it conforms with my world view. I swear, you can’t trust anyone these days.

I do think two things the Internet facilitates are the spread of false stories in a very short period of time and tracking how quickly these stories spread. Now a lie can run around the world three times before the truth can even find its boots. whee?

To me, at least, that represents a very weird moment in Internet discourse — an issue I also addressed earlier this week. At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?

What do you mean, become? Ha, ha, I kid. Society has always been irrational. The Internet just means we can see some of the alternate realities. And shudder a bit. But I don’t think it is time to step into the magic circle of safety. Just yet.

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