Guest column: Consume with care

There is, it turns out, a silver lining to the phenomenon of fake news on the internet.

It’s created a booming cottage industry in countries like Macedonia, which, we’d all agree, could use a good boost. So, congratulations to Americans who slurp up fake news like so much Big Gulp soda — you are making young people in the Third World wealthy beyond their wildest imagining.

NBC News tells the story of Dimitri (not his real name — he goes by an alias to protect his business model), who proudly boasts that he made tens of thousands of dollars on social media during the American election by manufacturing stories with headlines such as: “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money To Clinton Campaign!”

Here are a couple of hints: If a headline includes words written in all caps and ends with an exclamation point, it’s probably not legitimate. Oh, and real journalists don’t use “just in” anymore. I’m not sure they ever did.

Dimitri is but a teenager, NBC reports, but he has good English skills and knows how to weave a salable fake news story. He’s also right when he proclaims his innocence.

“I didn’t force anyone to give me money,” NBC quotes him as saying. “People sell cigarettes, they sell alcohol. That’s not illegal; why is my business illegal? If you sell cigarettes, cigarettes kill people. I didn’t kill anyone.”

We get the media we deserve. This was the title of a presentation I made to the Idaho Falls City Club more than a year ago, and it’s a fact. If we’re too lazy, stupid or gullible to sort out fact from fiction, we certainly can’t blame the Dimitris of the world. This is capitalism at work — Dimitri has found a market and is serving it. He ought to get some sort of chamber of commerce medal.

We want to get all huffy over the proliferation of nasty stuff on the internet, from porn to bogus news, but it exists because there’s a market. If we’re serious about cleaning up the internet sewer, we can start by taking a little care in how we consume it. When we pass along the latest trending “story” or hot meme without confirming its veracity, we’re not just part of the problem — we are the problem.

Let’s not forget, however, that this is a feel-good story. Dimitri picked up a cool $60,000 for his bogus news efforts in a country where the median annual income is $4,600 a year. On the other hand, is this the sort of labor export that our president- elect is so worked up about? Perhaps we should ban all but domestic fake news.

Here’s a comparison worth considering — we often say that people who don’t vote don’t have a right to complain about their politicians, and there’s a certain logic to that. Would it not also be true that people who don’t attempt to separate real news from Dimitri’s work also might deserve the media they get?

Roger Plothow is the Post Register’s editor and publisher. You can write to him at 333 Northgate Mile, Idaho Falls, ID 83403 or email him at rplothow@postregister.com.

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