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The anatomy of a fake news headline

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As confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and police erupted across the country earlier this month, some Oregonians, mostly older people, saw a Facebook ad pushing a headline about how a Republican politician “Wants Martial Law To Control The Obama-Soros Antifa Supersoldiers.” Needless to say, there was no army of left-wing “supersoldiers” marching across Oregon, …
As confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and police erupted across the country earlier this month, some Oregonians, mostly older people, saw a Facebook ad pushing a headline about how a Republican politician “Wants Martial Law To Control The Obama-Soros Antifa Supersoldiers.”
Needless to say, there was no army of left-wing “supersoldiers” marching across Oregon, nor were former president Barack Obama and billionaire George Soros known to be funding anything antifa-related. And the politician in question didn’t actually say there were “supersoldiers.” The headline, originally from the often-sarcastic, progressive blog Wonkette, was never meant to be taken as straight news.
The whole thing was a mishap born of the modern news age, in which what headlines you see is decided not by a hard-bitten front-page editor but instead by layers of algorithms designed to pick what’s news and who should be shown it. This system can work fine, but in this instance it fed into a maelstrom of misinformation that was already inspiring some westerners to grab their guns and guard their towns against the largely non-existent threat of out-of-town antifa troublemakers.maelstrom of misinformationgrab their guns and guard their townsnon-existent threat of out-of-town antifa
This was just one headline that fed into a sense of paranoia reinforced by rumors from many sources. But deconstructing exactly how it came about provides a window into how easy it is for a fringe conspiracy theory to accidentally slip into the ecosystem of mainstream online news.
The trouble started when SmartNews picked up Wonkette’s mocking story. SmartNews is a news aggregation app that brings in users by placing nearly a million dollars worth of ads on Facebook, according to Facebook’s published data. According to the startup’s mission statement, its “algorithms evaluate millions of articles, social signals and human interactions to deliver the top 0.01% of stories that matter most, right now.”published datastartup’s mission statement
The company, which says that “news should be impartial, trending and trustworthy,” usually picks ordinary local news headlines for its Facebook ads—maybe from your local TV news station. Users who install the app get headlines about their home area and topics of interest, curated by SmartNews’s algorithms. This time, however, the headline was sourced from Wonkette, in a story mocking Jo Rae Perkins, Oregon’s Republican U. S. Senate nominee, who has sparked controversy for her promotion of conspiracy theories.sparked controversy
In early June, as protests against police violence cropped up in rural towns across the country, Perkins recorded a Facebook Live video calling for “hard martial law” to “squash” the “antifa thugs” supposedly visiting various towns in Oregon. She also linked protesters, baselessly, to common right-wing targets: “Many, many people believe that they are being paid for by George Soros,” she said, and “this is the army that Obama put together a few years ago.”recorded a Facebook Live video
Perkins never said “supersoldier”—the term is apparently a Twitterverse joke, in this case added to its headline by Wonkette to mock Perkins’s apparent fear of protesters.

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