Drawing on forty in-depth interviews with self-proclaimed “bad TV” watchers about their media consumption, this research examines how people consume fake news. There are four modes of consuming fake news. Conventional consumers either avoid or are duped into reading or viewing fake news. Alternatively, others consume fake news as a guilty pleasure, ironically, or with a camp sensibility.
We are inundated with fake news, but lack an understanding of how audiences consume these stories. Fake news sensations include: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” “RuPaul Claims Trump Touched Him Inappropriately in the 1990s,” and “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News.” While some readers are duped by these stories, others consume these stories intentionally. Any research on fake news or policy recommendations on how to stymie its impact must begin with an accurate typology of how audiences consume fake news.
In research conducted with Charles Allan McCoy on non-conventional media consumption, we interviewed forty self-proclaimed consumers of “bad TV”.1 Our research examines how consumers purposefully engage with media they consider “bad”. Most of our interviewees consume television, online, or print journalism in at least one unconventional way. Rather than developing a typology of consumers, we map modes of consuming “bad” culture inductively. This research suggests that there are four approaches to consuming fake news: conventional, guilty pleasure, ironic, and with a camp sensibility.
Consider the case of Pizzagate – a fake news cataclysm linking Hillary Clinton to a fictitious child-sex ring. Conventional consumers either interpreted this story as factual insight into the life of “Crooked Hillary” or flagged it as rubbish to be avoided. However, many readers enjoy fake news because it is fake news. Guilty pleasure readers consume the story as a diversion or release from daily stresses. An ironic reader enjoys mocking Pizzagate as something that is “so bad it’s good”. A campy reader loves the exaggerated themes and satire of the outrageous accusations. An individual might adopt a preferred approach or shift among these four modes of engaging with fake news.
For those employing a conventional mode of consumption, fake news is something to be avoided. An insurance salesperson describes selecting a newspaper: “If I had my choice, it would be The New York Times every single day of the week, but we’ve been on and off. Also, The Daily Progress gets on our nerves… It doesn’t have anything meaty in it. It doesn’t have any substantial news articles… It was just rife with typos and ridiculous turns of phrase. It was embarrassing…” (57, female) Similarly, a government retiree dismisses any media that is not serious journalism or high culture: “There are people who have a paradoxical view of some things. They watch things just to amuse themselves, but that’s not something I do.” (female, 83) These women avoid fake news because it is factually inaccurate, it violates their tastes, or it is an unwanted diversion.
Consumers using a conventional mode of consumption evaluate journalism based on the veracity of its content and their personal tastes. These conventional consumers expect rigorous reporting of objective facts, often filtered through a preferred ideological lens. Audiences using a conventional mode of consumption avoid fake news or are duped into reading or viewing it accidentally.
Guilty pleasure consumers feel shame or embarrassment about their consumption of fake news. A swim coach describes the moral dilemma of a guilty pleasure consumer: “I really don’t like watching it, but it’s like a train wreck, I’m drawn to watching it, if that makes sense. Every time I watch, I think, ‘This is horrible. I can’t believe I’m watching this.’ ” (26, female) Similarly, a university student outlines his experience of consuming media in the guilty pleasure mode:
I know it’s not necessarily like high quality, but I like it anyway. Like if someone says they have a guilty pleasure of eating at McDonalds, that is not necessarily good for them, they aren’t getting much out of it, but they like it. Something they go to, it’s easy to access, a lot of other people like it, they know it doesn’t do much for them but it feels good. So, it serves no long-term purpose but it just makes you feel good in the moment. (23, male)
Consuming fake news as a guilty pleasure is not about the acquisition of facts. Alternatively, these consumers are seeking diversion.
Guilty pleasure consumers of fake news seek mindless entertainment after a long day of work or a reprieve from serious cultural engagement. Rather than reading rigorous journalism, guilty pleasure consumers opt to read fake news about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a child-sex ring or the Pope’s endorsement of Donald Trump. Those who consume fake news as a guilty pleasure know the stories are inauthentic, yet read for entertainment, escape or hedonistic zeal.
Ironic consumers enjoy fake news because it is so bad that it is enjoyable. Irony allows consumers to mock the content or delivery of fake news stories. A security guard describes his ironic viewing of local news:
I watch local news ironically, because it is so low budget, a lot of people just starting out in the business and it’s often just really bad. So, I constantly make fun of the little teases. “Local man dies,” I’d think, “I know a local man. I better watch to see if it’s someone I know.” [Scoffs] “Will it be nice this weekend? Your weather after this break.” Why not just say, “Your weather will be nice this weekend?” Now, I know they need to make money or whatever, but it’s just ridiculous. (46, male)
Ironic consumers revel in ridiculing news stories. Fake news stories, such as accusations of Donald Trump assaulting RuPaul, are prime for ironic consumption because these stories are perceived to be absurdly unbelievable or inaccurate. Fake news is mocked for sport by the ironist.
Any news story that falls short of consumers’ aesthetic tastes or expectations is open to ironic consumption. Irony is apt when gaffes occur or when production is of low quality. One graduate student outlines the need for sincerity: “It’s funnier to watch people who are being sincere. I guess part of the ironic viewing is that it’s watching people who tried to make something sincerely fail pretty badly. Now, if he’s trying to make something bad then it’s not as fun to watch.” (29, male) The ironic mode works best when consumers think producers and journalists are not “in on the joke.” Thus, irony is well suited for reading or viewing of fake news that makes its way into mainstream media outlets.
Rather than revelling in how bad a story is ironically, those with a camp sensibility admire fake news for being ridiculous or over-the-top. The ostentatiousness, satirical themes, and wilful exaggeration of fake news make it ripe for consumption using a camp sensibility. A retail employee describes camp:
It’s campy and it’s fun and it pokes fun at them but not the point of being mean… You can’t really stay mad at watching something so bad. [Laughs] I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s so bad, where it’s good… and they took the time to do something so horrible. [Laughs] I guess that is the mindset; it’s just funny that way. (30, female)
In addition to appreciating content, those utilising a camp sensibility celebrate the authors or producers of fake news. A veterinarian expresses this type of admiration: “I respect the hell out of them because they are the greatest con artists in the entire world. You are watching a person do the pinnacle of their profession.” (37, male). The extreme theatrical quality and over-the-top themes give fake news a perversely sophisticated appeal to camp consumers.
Consuming Fake News
It is misguided to presume that all news consumers seek fact-based journalism and avoid fake news. Conventional consumers desire rigorous journalism from mainstream news media sources and only consume fake news by accident. Yet, there are many others who consume fake news intentionally. Guilty pleasure consumers think of fake news as the fast food of news; it is an escape or reward for serious cultural engagement or other taxing work. Those consuming ironically enjoy fake news because “it’s so bad that it’s good.” Camp consumers celebrate the exaggerated, bad taste of fake news. Many readers or viewers shift among these four modes of consumption, often selecting an approach based on their mood or social context.
Most discussions on why people read or watch fake news operate under the faulty assumption that audiences misinterpret these stories as authentic news. This reductive model misses out on a range of ways that audiences consume fake news stories. Many consumers are not seeking mainstream news media products or rigorous journalism, especially not exclusively. Establishing an exhaustive typology of how people consume fake news is necessary. This is a prerequisite step toward the development of policy recommendations to alleviate the pernicious epidemic of “alternative facts”, misinformation, and media manipulation that thrive when fake news is ubiquitous.
Roscoe C. Scarborough, Ph.D is in the Department of Sociology at Franklin and Marshall College. His research interests include media audiences, culture, inequality, theory and qualitative research methods.
1. McCoy, Charles Allan and Roscoe C. Scarborough. 2014. “Watching ‘Bad’ Television: Ironic Consumption, Camp, and Guilty Pleasures.” Poetics 47:41-59.