Animal lovers loathe the term “puppy farm”, which gained recognition after various media outlets published reports on an unsavoury industry which exploits our natural affinity for furry friends. A court judgement defined the farms as: “A dog breeding operation in which the health of dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximise profits.”
Much as puppy farms exploit the affections of dog lovers, F1’s content farms exploit the deep passion of motorsport fans worldwide.
Seldom do such sites send representatives to grands prix, simply as most don’t come close to fulfilling the accreditation requirements. They may make the excuse that news also breaks outside of race weekends, but genuine journalists source from both in and outside the paddock; being on-site enables contacts to be cultivated and off-record insights to be shared.
Plus, of course, attending races costs money, and doing that would eat into the content farms’ profits.
It is far easier to lift genuine news from those who foot the substantial sums needed to follow Formula 1 from Melbourne to Monza and beyond, maintaining solid relations with teams and drivers needed to break original stories. Few farms bother to credit where the information for their articles originally appeared; fewer still go to the trouble of correctly identifying the original source for a story, often merely ‘crediting’ another farm.
Worse, in their determination to disguise the origin of ‘lifted’ material they regularly distort headlines and sensationalise content, doing the subjects no favours in the process.
While many dedicated motorsport fans have learned to distinguish between real news sites and content farms, many unsuspecting readers lap up the sensationalised stories, in process generating substantial income for the ‘farmers’ and extending their reach.
We regularly discover stories which originated on RaceFans appearing on other websites, regurgitated into something quite unlike the original. This happens because, while content farms appear superficially similar to real news websites, the motivation behind them is entirely different.
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We understand we are constantly judged on our ability to find new, compelling and important stories and report them accurately, or our readers will go elsewhere. Content farmers, however, target news aggregators which present vast lists of links to undiscerning readers, and social media platforms whose algorithms ensure the strongest clickbait gets the most attention.
Already this year several of our original stories have been taken, sensationalised and so rehashed they cannot fail to have misled anyone who mistook them for real journalism.
Only last week Juan Manuel Correa, survivor of last year’s horrific Formula 2 crash which claimed the life of Anthoine Hubert, took to Instagram to lambast the sensationalised second-hand reportage of an interview he’d originally given to a German television channel. In the original interview Correa criticised the FIA, accusing the sport’s governing body of “not being concerned” about his welfare. Many outlets seized upon the quotes and rushed to reprint them with little thought for the wider implications of the story. None bothered to contact the FIA or the doctor to get their side of the story. One went as far as accusing the FIA of apathy, then explained why the driver was ‘so angry’ – all without having spoken to him.
As RaceFans readers will be aware, last week we exclusively published the views of the doctor concerned on Correa’s claims. Predictably, the next day the scrapers lifted the story, with headlines stating that the doctor “hit back”.
It was at this point Correa issued his Instagram clarification, directing him criticism at one particular website, albeit granting them the benefit of doubts they do not deserve by naively suggesting they acted with the best of intentions. Did this prompt a correction or clarification or even an apology? Of course not: they simply removed the story en bloc in the hope it would be forgotten. To do otherwise would draw negative attention to their practices.
Another such example from earlier this year regarded information we received from sources that F1 teams had expressed “concerns” at the crammed timeline for Liberty Media’s planned 70th Anniversary Fan Festival. This was scheduled for the weekend of May 16th/17th, immediately following the back-to-back Dutch and Spanish Grands Prix, and followed by the Monaco round which, of course, begins a day earlier than the others.
Our story pointed out teams had raised objections, but one copy of it on another site insisted Liberty’s plans were “unraveling [sic] according to RaceFans”. We had written nothing of the sort: Expressing “concern” is absolutely not synonymous with the plan being in jeopardy, while attributing such blatant misinformation to RaceFans unfairly tarnishes us.
Confronted on Twitter, the ‘author’s’ response was that they would “fix” whatever was “wrong”. Obliging, no doubt, but an obvious admission they had ripped off our story and not attempted to obtain the information themselves, much less ensure the copy was accurate.
Simultaneously the same site – plus others – claimed Haas and Williams had announced their 2020 launch dates, having scraped another story from RaceFans. But they managed to mislay the most basic of details: The teams had not announced anything at the time, we discovered the dates from other sources of information.
Yet the headline on one ripped version proclaimed: “Williams and Haas the latest to announce launch plans”. Ignoring the questionable grammar, the claim that either team had announced their plans was, at the time, utterly incorrect. The teams in question announced their dates publicly a week later.
The article also referred to Alfa Romeo’s launch plans, which had been announced earlier by the team. When we drew the publisher’s attention to the glaring error they removed all reference to Williams and Haas from their story, then revised the headline to read “Alfa Romeo announce launch date”. No apology, no explanation: tomorrow simply provides another copycat day…
Social media has played a role in encouraging the spread of this coverage, but also helps shine lights on the worst offenders. Such as another site, which has pilfered several stories from RaceFans without so much as an acknowledgement, including our August 2019 scoop on Panthera F1 Team’s plans to enter the sport.
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Following criticism on social media platforms, the editor-in-chief emailed solemn undertakings that protocols were in place to prevent repeats. If they had, they were obviously overlooked last month when another of our original stories, this one concerning our report on plans for a pre-testing group photoshoot, appeared without a credit.
[smr2020test]Once again the site was contacted. A credit was later added, though in such haste the copy was butchered into the following: “Liberty Media want to do a photo with all the 2020 Formula 1 drivers and their cars to mark the start of the decade. However, this plan was not approved by all of the years ahead of the winter testing according to RaceFans.”
There is a depressingly familiar pattern to the behaviour of these publications when challenged over their indifference to accuracy and readiness to steal material without attributing it. Slapdash edits, removal of paragraphs or even entire articles is par for the course. Expending the time and effort to check with sources before publication is apparently never a consideration.
Search engine algorithms evidently do not take into consideration how frequently a publication retracts its stories before promoting them to you. News aggregators dumbly compile huge lists of links with the newest stories at the top and no consideration given to accuracy. A notable exception is aggregator-cum-social platform Reddit, whose Formula 1 community has blocked links to a number of sites it considers “low-credibility”, and periodically adds new offenders.
But where interest in a story is especially high, and available information very low, content farming goes to its most bizarre extremes. Farms begin feeding off each other, and old quotes dredged up into new stories which bear no relation to reality.
One of the saddest Formula 1 stories of recent years concerns Michael Schumacher’s prolonged state of deep unconsciousness as a result of his skiing accident in December 2013. Regrettably, this too provides numerous examples of click-baiters putting sensationalism ahead of sensitivity and journalistic accuracy.
As arguably the most popular driver in F1 history, any snippet about the health of the seven-time champion is eagerly snapped up by millions of fans of the driver and the sport, making his condition an easy target for sites whose existence rides on the maximising of clicks regardless of ethical considerations.
In the middle of last year one site claimed Schumacher had watched the German Grand Prix with FIA president Jean Todt, citing two other publications as its sources. In fact, none had conducted the original interview with Todt in which the details of his visit came to light, and the regurgitated version of the story was wildly wrong.
Todt had described his visit to Schumacher in a lengthy interview for German outlet Bild Motorsport in December 2018. They had gone to great lengths to interview FIA president Jean Todt – former team boss to Schumacher’s during his Ferrari championship years and in regular contact with the family – ahead of a feature timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the skiing accident.
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During the conversation, conducted most respectfully by both the experienced journalist and the measured Todt, he revealed that he was in regular contact with the family, and had watched a recent race “at Michael’s home”. In fact, the headline to the article, written in German, strictly translates as: “Todt watched GP at Schumi”.
The race in question was not last year’s event at Hockenheim, but the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix. How many Schumacher fans have been misled by the subsequent report?
Misinterpretations of Todt’s account continue to be dragged up by the click farms. One last week included a prognosis of his condition provided by a doctor who has never even treated Schumacher.
Yes, many fans are desperate for news on Schumacher. But that is no licence to prey on them by publishing twisted untruths and deliberate misinformation, and worse, to do so at the expense of his suffering family, which surely deserves a break after six years.
Content farms survive due to the news aggregators – Google News, etc… – and social networks – Facebook, Twitter and the rest – which sustain them. Until those platforms take steps to penalise those who peddle inaccurate coverage, the problem will largely remain. Do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
That leaves the motorsport fan seeking reliable coverage wondering how to spot the difference between accredited journalists who have much to lose by disseminating nonsense and scrapers, who simply shrug aside criticism, then continue? There are numerous pointers, including reportage that attests to race attendance – diaries or selfies, etc. It may strike readers as vanity when outlets include shots with drivers or team bosses, but photos also provide authenticity.
Non-accreditation or attendance is, of course, not concrete proof of scraping, for most scribes have solid sources and deliver accurate, professional work despite doing so remotely or due the costs of travel.
The more sensational the stories, the less likely the platform has sourced them, for they need to sex up content to disguise origin and attract clicks; equally they don’t need to fear the wrath of teams and drivers over inaccuracies as they don’t face them every fortnight (or, increasingly, week). Nor is their media access at risk, simply because they don’t have any.
Is it not strange that they criticise those who do travel and have access, yet have no qualms about stealing stories. Such double standards are, though, to be expected from such folk.
Of course it is not the case that accredited outlets are infallible. We are certainly not making that claim for ourselves. But there is a difference between an honest mistake made in the pursuit of a accurate, original reportage, and serial inaccuracies resulting from a desire to produce the most sensationalised version of someone else’s story.
As ever the lesson is: caveat lector – ‘reader beware’ – for although first prize is always to be fully informed, it is surely far better to be uninformed than wilfully misinformed.
- The year of sprints, ‘the show’ – and rising stock: A political review of the 2021 F1 season
- The problems of perception the FIA must address after the Abu Dhabi row
- Why the budget cap could be F1’s next battleground between Mercedes and Red Bull
- Todt defied expectations as president – now he plans to “disappear” from FIA
- Sir Frank Williams: A personal appreciation of a true racer