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Let’s do the numbers: the business of fake news

Donna Tam Nov 22, 2016
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Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been scrutinized for promoting fake news on their sites. 
PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images

Most middle school students can’t tell the difference between fake news from information published by actual news organizations, according to a Stanford University study released today.

Researchers asked students to determine the credibility of online posts. Most student — 82 percent — read “sponsored content” as the same as a real news story on a website. For Twitter, it mattered more to students if a tweet had a lot of information, or had a photo attached, not the source.

The study adds to a growing discussion about the rising influence of fake news, particularly on social media. One fake news creator told The Washington Post last week that he thought fake news sites like his own contributed to the spread of false information during the election campaign, and ultimately, to the election of President-elect Donald Trump. 

Public scrutiny on the topic prompted Facebook to vow, among other things, to implement ways of “disrupting fake news economics.”

So how big is this fake news economy? Not a whole lot is known in terms of total revenue, but here are few numbers to illustrate the size of the industry:

120 fake news sites (at least): One professor created a list of fake news sites that could be shared publicly, only to take it down after receiving harassment, the Los Angeles Times reported. At one point, the list contained more than 120 sites.

$3,000 per day: There was an explosion of pro-Trump sites this election season thanks to entrepreneurs in Macedonia, BuzzFeed News reported earlier this month. The publication identified at least 140 sites originating from the small town of Veles. One fake news generator told BuzzFeed it’s possible to earn $5,000 a month, or “or even $3,000 per day.”

$10,000 a month: Paul Horner, the fake news writer who said he helped Trump get elected, makes most of his money through Google AdSense. “ You wouldn’t believe how much money I make from it,” he told The Washington Post before disclosing his earnings of $10,000 per month.

$10,000 a day: Horner has been making money off fake news for years, and $10,000 a month is consistent with what he’s seen in the past, according to this October 2014 interview with the Post. But some stories are more lucrative than others. When his fake story about street artist Banksy went viral, he said he was collecting $10,000 each day.

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