Meet the Professor Who’s Trying to Help You Steer Clear of Clickbait

November 17, 2016

Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, says she has received "hundreds and hundreds" of emails about her list of unreliable news sites.

Last week Melissa Zimdars started keeping a list of popular but unreliable news sites — some she’d encountered on her own Facebook feed, others she’d searched for, still others drawn from suggestions by friends and colleagues. The plan was to show the list to students in her mass-communication classes at Merrimack College as an aid in teaching media literacy.

Then, on Monday afternoon, the plan changed. Ms. Zimdars learned that the top result returned by a Google search about the election’s popular vote was an article from a deeply untrustworthy news site that falsely claimed that President-elect Donald J. Trump had carried the popular vote. The assistant professor took the list, which she had shared privately on her Facebook page that morning, and made it public.

In its current form, the document contains tips for analyzing news sources and a roster of over 100 websites that report unreliable and misleading content. Ms. Zimdars has separated those sites into four categories. Sites in the first category use "decontextualized or dubious information" and anger to generate traffic on social media. Those in the second share misleading or unreliable information. Sites in the third category use clickbait-style headlines or social-media descriptions, and those in the fourth report false news for the purpose of humor or satire.

Some well-known sites turn up on the list — Breitbart, for example, is assigned to Categories 2 and 3, and ClickHole and the Borowitz Report exemplify the fourth group. But many relatively obscure outlets — like, the site that showed up in the Google search on the popular vote — are listed as well.

The Chronicle spoke with Ms. Zimdars about the reaction to her project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What spurred you to create the list?

Part of the immediate impetus was to give it to my students as a resource. If you find yourself on these websites, and many others, you should make sure that you know what these websites are, and understand that all media has a different frame and has different standards for newsworthiness. So it was basically to encourage them to always read multiple sources of information.

I made it public after I saw that was the No. 1 Google news site that popped up when people Googled the popular election results. As that was happening, some of my communication and media friends were like, "Hey, we want to share this list on Facebook or with our students," so I was like, Oh, OK, so people are interested in this. But I honestly didn’t anticipate getting more than a few shares.

It’s basically a lesson in media literacy for my students that exploded to be something much beyond that.

The list has become popular very quickly. What has the reaction been like?

I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails over the last two days, and overwhelmingly, they’re very positive — especially among academics, among journalists, among librarians, and everyday people who are just frustrated and don’t know how to wade through all the information that’s thrown at them on a daily basis.

This group of librarians, they’re meeting to work through the viability of creating something that would provide more detail, like a description of each source, sample articles, or headlines, so that it would be much more informative than this sort of basic list was.

You’ve mentioned that the list has become surprisingly controversial. How so?

Of course, organizations on the list are definitely not happy — although some of them have reported thoughtful pieces about the list. I think what they’re unhappy with is less the list and more how the list is being reported. If you don’t traffic in fake news, but a website is saying, This is a list of fake news, of course that’s why they would be unhappy.

Some have mentioned that they may pursue [legal action] if I don’t remove them from the list. So I wanted to talk with other media and communication scholars or just seek legal advice over how to best respond to people asking to be removed.

I will defend them being on the list, but I realize that this blew up very quickly. I want this list to become something that’s valuable and that can help spread information and awareness. I don’t want it to become something that spreads misinformation and further distrust.

Do you think the election contributed to the proliferation of these unreliable news sites?

People are focusing a lot on this election, but I think that these sites have been influential on all kinds of different elections over the last few years. I think it’s intensified during this particular one, maybe because there seems to be an ever-replicating number of purposely misleading websites at this time. But for years, there have been sites circulating half-truths and not necessarily reliable information.

What caused the intensification?

My opinion, just based on observation, is it’s partially due to how Facebook sets up what we see algorithmically, giving us in some ways what we want. And this is a common news debate: Giving the audience what they want or what they need, and catering to what we want, it sort of continuously confirms our beliefs. Since a lot of these alternative or potentially misleading websites confirm people’s gut reactions to hunches about what’s happening in the mainstream news media, this sort of reinforces that and makes them feel validated and listened to.

You’ve said that you were unhappy with the way some outlets have reported on the list. Could you elaborate on that?

I see where it’s reported with the headline "List of Fake News Sites," and that’s a completely inaccurate headline. It’s a list that includes several fake-news sites, but also sites that do offer regularly good journalism but rely on clickbait-style headlines on Facebook or sometimes exaggerated descriptors to reel people in.

But to lump all of those sites as fake has me worried, and I think that kind of reporting and that kind of headline weebling is precisely why we have such distrust generally with media organizations. Frankly, some people are expressing problems with media literacy in reading a document basically about media literacy.