The World of Online Publishing Makes Liars of Us All
Tim Denning, AI, Narcissism, & the Truth
As a blogger, I am someone who values the truth. I take the responsibility of this platform very seriously. I will spend hours analyzing and double-checking my sources, going down research rabbit holes that will never turn into content. I spend a lot of time-consuming articles and books that take me a long time to process and digest, all so I can feel somewhat confident that I know what the [email protected] I am talking about.
Yet mistakes in my articles still slip through. Sometimes these are minor errors — typos and poor word usage happen more than I would like. The words “definitely” and “patriarchy” are my nemeses. Other times I get facts wrong. I recently erroneously stated that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal came out during the Irish Famine (roughly 1845–1852). It came out over a hundred years earlier, in 1729.
I make mistakes, which bothers me because I don't want misinformation to spread. I want people to come to me for verified facts, but the current system demands that creators pump out a lot of content to remain profitable, and that leads to an ecosystem where mistakes are not only common but incentivized.
The (current) problem with online publishing
At the risk of sounding cruel, much self-produced content on the Internet is terrible. I see many writers putting out countless pieces of work littered with very transparent typos, grammar mistakes, or factual errors. For example, many writers on this platform spread misinformation about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, claiming that everyone and the kitchen sink is a full-blown narcissist, when really what they mean is that a person is mean to them (see I'm A Professor of Human Behavior, And I Have News About The 'Narcissists' In Your Life).
Other times the work is just uncritically perpetuating memes that are not based in reality. Take the user Tim Denning (please don’t harass him), a self-help expert who is probably one of the most well-known creators on this platform. He produces work that essentially equates to "hustle and work harder, and everything will be okay.” "The answer to money problems is to make more money, not cut back on expenses," he lectures, as if the hurdles of American capitalism can be tackled through willpower alone (they can’t). People like this make careers by perpetuating a useful set of lies that make you feel better (and uncritical) about your perceived accomplishments.
This type of work is getting even more common with AI-generated content, which some creators are starting to use to push out articles en mass. For example, one blogger I follow (who I will not identify because they are too small) is very vocal about using AI technology to assist with her writing, toting it as a way to increase production. When I look at her blog (and the many others that make a similar claim), however, I see a lot of self-help and get-rich-quick posts that aren't precisely War & Peace. Not all the advice generated from this frenzy is terrible, but it's no different from most SEO content.
One post of hers (which I was not able to verify if it was written via AI) ludicrously recommends that it's easy to self-publish a book over the weekend and start making money, exclaiming: "Creating an ebook may feel like an undertaking, but it doesn't need to be, especially when you have the right tools. And it's so worth the effort because you'll be left with a digital asset that can continue to make sales month after month!"
This is a statement that requires a lot of work to even articulate why it's wrong. As someone who runs a publication that pays its writers and is in the process of auctioning off several books, you can not just bang out a book over the weekend and start gaining passive income. Profitability in the world of publishing is very hard. Even if you are writing about stoicism or some other SEO-optimized soup, you are competing against the thousands of others churning out the same content. While making passive income on several books may be true if we are talking about cents on the dollar, to make that model work, you have to produce a lot of content, which often means having to rely on outsourcing labor to contractors on platforms like Fiverr even to begin to make a profit (see Contrepreneurs: The Mikkelsen Twins & How I Became a Minecraft Scam Artist).
To go on the briefest of tangents, this seems to be the goal of AI-assisted technology. It's not that this copy-and-paste machine will be able to produce award-winning art (at least not at its current level of development), but it will be able to help people whose careers are simply churning out an endless array of self-help content to cut out the middle people (e.g., editors, graphic designers, etc.) that they already don't pay that well. The end goal is not to verify your facts — you need human editors to comb through your content to do that (defeating the whole point of the speed of this process), but to produce content that will sell quickly.
AI-generated self-help content may be an extreme example, but all self-published content creators have this problem, where the financial incentive is to cut corners in some areas. Again, I am not immune to this phenomenon of spreading misinformation to some degree. We could talk about my article How To Stop The Left from Losing Social Media, where I erroneously labeled the Facebook group Occupy Democrats a good model, only to realize my mistake months later (see Is "Occupy Democrats" Fake News?). I didn't have enough time to comb through every one of that article's assumptions because this platform doesn't pay me enough to do that work.
Occupy Democrats is a great example here of an organization that turned into something awful in a naked pursuit to increase its view numbers and reach. The founder described being inspired to make the company in the wake of Occupy Wallstreet, but whatever his original intentions, that morphed into this small brand pushing out regular anger porn that is often inaccurate or half-true. A brand that until recently routinely broke Facebook's Top 10 posts and enraged, click-baited, and misinformed millions of people.
It would be easy to blame this trend on scale alone. From personal experience, when you are a mid-tier influencer, some works will produce a lot of money, while others will pay nothing. There is consequently a pressure to increase the frequency so you can earn a living, but quality gets lost in trying to do that. I have often said that “maybe if I was larger, had a bigger following, and could pay editors, these editorial mistakes would become less frequent,” but reality doesn't align with that expectation.
We are not simply talking about Occupy Democrats here but even more prominent brands. Remember, we started this article focusing on Tim Denning, someone with a reach in the hundreds of thousands (and probably, millions across all platforms). He can most likely pay for an editor or two. Yet he’s still perpetuating a lot of misinformation. The lies he’s telling about hustle culture are integral to how he makes money. The incentive is to produce inspiration and hustle porn —not to genuinely depict the American workplace for what it is. If that were the case, he’d tell people that they would be financially better off, in the long run, organizing a union and taking other forms of collective action , but that perspective is harder to sell as an online course on “how to be the exception and get super rich.”
And so this is not merely an issue of scale, but the types of content being prioritized on the Internet, and everyone is susceptible to this race to the bottom. For example, recently, the Washington Post garnered controversy for laying off 20 journalists and then announcing increasing its opinion department a day later with primarily conservative commentators (I guess Democracy Dies when everyone’s watching). The Post is pivoting to more engaging, less rigorous content because that’s where the financial incentive is for them — it’s where the incentive is for many people.
Whether we are talking about bad psychology articles, human or AI-generated self-help content, political clickbait, or me not verifying my sources correctly, the frequency of production in online publishing leads to many mistakes. The point is not to inform your audience but to enrage, inspire and entertain as fastly as possible, and that not only constrains the types of content made but its overall quality.
What do we do about this?
It often feels like all online creators are circling the drain, going ever downward. Online publishing was advertised as a revolution in truth — a way to get information that was stigmatized a chance to shine —and it does that sometimes, but more frequently, it has led to the propagation of shit. We have millions of influencers sharing unverified factoids and half-truths to bump up their view numbers, subscriptions, or advertising revenue, with little consideration for anything else.
The neoliberal solution, by which I mean finding a solution through the marketplace, would be to invest in creators who you think will do a good job (you might want to check out my bio) as well as divest from the ones who have a proven track record of spreading misinformation. If you haven't already, I highly recommend unsubscribing from sites like Occupy Democrats and never taking a meme shared on Twitter or Facebook seriously.
Yet it seems naive to believe that we will find the solution to this problem within the marketplace of ideas alone. In an environment where misinformation, which users seem to be very bad at recognizing, is placed alongside "good pieces of reporting," it becomes tough for the truth to rise to the top. As the infamous Mark Twain saying goes: "A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes."
This is in and of itself a lie, by the way.
There is no good evidence that he genuinely said this, and my bringing it up now is meant to further highlight the point: most people spread misinformation online because they have no incentive to fact-check it. In general, some businesses and creators might strive to go the extra mile, but most devolve to the lowest common denominator to make a profit. Whether that’s appealing to people’s pseudoscientific understanding of psychology, their fairytale notions of American meritocracy, or plain ole' American racism and sexism, these biases sell, which is why we can not expect the marketplace to solve this problem.
We can’t afford to let market forces continue to guide us. The only real solution that will work is building institutions that seek to move beyond the neoliberal paradigm we currently find ourselves in — to join, build, or found a lefty organization essentially. This can take the form of joining a leftist volunteer organization like the DSA, founding a worker’s coop, especially a journalistic one, and in general, advocating for journalism not linked to a corporation.
The truth shouldn't be for sale, and until we change things, people will continue to spread lies at bargain prices.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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