Helvetica is the reason we have fake news

by Daniel Kelley

I like seeing my articles on Medium or my own blog because they look a lot better as posts on here than they do as the shitty Arial, 11 point word docs they really are. The fact that my writing has its own URL gives me this nice warm, fuzzy feeling of being a legitimate writer — even if it’s only ego. More seriously, I imagine my words are better received by my readers when they’re read on a site like Medium, where they have their own URL. I think all Medium contributors would agree with that. Published works carry greater weight than a Facebook post that happens to use complete sentences.

Fake News follows the same principle. When people see a thousand-word article written in fancy typeface on a dense website with a bunch of external links in the footer, they tend to take it seriously. Whether that article was written by a Brown professor or a white supremacist is irrelevant because lies look like truth when they wear the same clothes.

Let me give you an example. Let’s play a game called “Which statement is bullshit?”

  1. 85% of mass shootings since 2012 have been perpetrated by someone diagnosed with a mental illness prior to the event. And 95% of mass shootings were committed in a state with one or more Democratic Senators.
  2. Less than 5% of all mass shootings were committed by people diagnosed with a mental illness. And less than 4% of all violent crime in the US is committed by people with a mental illness.

If you weren’t so discerning, you might actually think the first was true given the rhetoric surrounding mental health and gun violence, especially in light of the revelation that the Sutherland Springs shooter spent time in mental health facilities. Hell, there are probably those who would nod their head emphatically at the first statement because it confirms their pre-existing beliefs about gun violence. More likely because they won’t bother to click the links.

The first statement is patently false. Seriously. Click the links. The second statement is true. 100% fact. Follow the links in that sentence and they’ll take you to a legitimate study (Violence and mental disorders: data and public policy) conducted by a distinguished researcher (Paul S. Appelbaum of the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry) and published by a reputable government source (the National Center for Biotechnology Information).

But to the casual reader, both of the statements with their respective underlined links appear identical. The fact that they’re underlined or glow blue is enough to convince the casual reader that I checked my sources before I hit Publish.

Herein lie the dangers.

Unknown sources play a big role in the spread of fake news because we don’t have a Twitter verification emblem for trustworthy journalists. Even if we did, could we trust it?

Danger #1: Sources

Fake news is rampant in 2017 because writers just aren’t well known.

Bloggers, authors, and journalists with the exception of a few recognizable names are virtually unknowns. As such, people don’t really know whose word to trust, who to go to if they want to get the facts. If I gave a random person on Venice Beach the names Jelani Cobb and Ilana Mercer, they probably couldn’t guess who was the liberal and who the conservative. Who wrote a fact-fortified takedown of John Kelly’s comments on the Civil War and who called the Muslim ban “Logical, Moral, And Even Libertarian.” You’d have to actually look up the names to figure it out, especially if hyperlinks weren’t provided. (But I will: Jelani Cobb / Ilana Mercer. Were you right?)

Unknown sources play a big role in the spread of fake news because we don’t have a Twitter verification emblem for trustworthy journalists. Even if we did, could we trust it?

Danger #2: Platforms

Any tiki-torch-toting alt-right blogger who happens to know some JavaScript can design their site to look as professional and prestigious as that of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or National Institutes of Health. It’s true that print journalism has been obfuscated by hearsay and sensationalism since the days of William Randolph Hearst, but printing lies is expensive. Nowadays anyone with a wifi connection can create and spread their own version of yellow press.

Unsubstantiated claims are easy to dress up as legitimate with some nice formatting and a Shutterstock image. Designing your own website is almost too easy thanks to the likes of Squarespace, Wordpress, and Wix. Hell, you don’t even need to know CSS to create disinformation: websites like Medium allow anyone to publish content on a nice-looking website (not to disparage how cool that is). Lies originate from platforms that can easily appear legitimate — or even are.

Danger #3: Human nature

People prefer opinion. And we really only prefer our own opinion. Ever heard of the echo chamber?

Comic by Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Consciously or not, we seek out the words, pages, hashtags, users, memes, you name it that confirm our biases. Then, thanks to Google algorithms I won’t ever understand, those same words and pages and hashtags seek us out. Our digital experience becomes a narrow, monochromatic stream of soundbites and talking points that further entrenches us in our own prejudices.

Our position on a topic is validated whenever we see an article, a think piece, or some new study float down our Twitter feed that aligns with our view. Most of us don’t even need that much — a headline is often enough. Extremists are especially susceptible to deceit, even willfully open to it, when they see the headlines the want to see: immigrants are responsible for the California wildfiresthe Sutherland Springs shooter was on the DNC payroll, and millions of illegals voted in 2016. All of these are lies. But someone published them online.

Fake news, what we should just call lies, are a concerted effort to misinform the public and sway opinion toward a political end. The real manufacturers of fake news understand that most of us don’t get how the internet works, who to trust, or where to find the facts. They know how to dress misinformation up to look like information, and how to get us to spread it for them. That Donald Trump accuses actual journalists of being the real “fake news” is a deliberate tactic to level the playing field for propaganda sites, Russian agents, and liars.

Post an ambiguous statement on a believable-enough website, sprinkle in a few hyperlinks and a thumbnail image, and you have all the ingredients you need for a fake news outbreak. Maybe it’s not right to blame a typeface for the dawn of a post-truth society, but it is undeniable that, dressed in Helvetica, lies masquerade as truth.