For a while this year, fake news seemed to be the ultimate explainer for unexpected current affairs: it was the thing that the liberal media clung to explain the idiocy (‘how can they believe this stuff?! Do they believe this stuff?’) of the right and reassured them that facts and truth would out; the thing that planted not just seeds of doubt in the Clinton camp, but veritable saplings of distrust. Had Clinton won this election, fake news could well have been a nice elegy to a truly bizarre campaign, and for that matter other similar truly bizarre events elsewhere in the world.
But of course, she didn’t and it wasn’t. The weeks and months since witnessed a good deal of head scratching amongst journalists and others in our profession on the matter, and annual retrospectives and predictions for the coming year – which are as much a part of the festive season as novelty jumpers and awkward family gatherings – find fake news, or the counter to it, a central theme.
Fake news builds on people’s suspicions that the media may not be telling the whole truth
The thing we’ve learned is that fake news isn’t just about some errant kids earning a few extra bucks in Macedonia (though wouldn’t it be nice to lay the blame at a singular, small geographical pocket far, far away from our own borders and jurisdictions?) Fake news is problematic because it throws into relief a broader problem, which is simply that it builds on people’s suspicions that the media may not be telling the whole truth the whole time. Once that seed of suspicion has been planted, it’s hard to rein it back in.
So, what are these various sage-like individuals proposing the solutions be? Let’s take a look.
The logical antidote to fake news is truth, right? (And naturally, what we mean by ‘truth’ is ‘facts’). While fake news and facts might sit at loggerheads with each other, is it not the public’s apparent inability to distinguish between the two – or even care – that’s the real problem?
Fact checking and ‘debunking’ organizations such as Snopes are in demand, but the process of deciding what’s legitimate and what’s not needs to go further than simply highlighting errata.
Kim Bui, the deputy managing editor of reported.ly, makes the distinction that, “debunking educates people about what is wrong and what is fake, but news literacy and analysis is what teaches them to evaluate for themselves”. It’s that latter point – news literacy – that’s interesting. If, as Kim Bui suggests, the problem is that the reading public aren’t sufficiently well equipped to know when either (a) a story could be fake and (b) how to check that it is, the onus will forever be on publishers to get everything right, all the time. Surely the result of that scenario is a more overstretched media and a more passive readership?
Of course it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether we’re worse now at evaluating information than we were in the pre-digital age, but the fact that the proper noun ‘Google’, has morphed into the verb ‘to Google’ should be a small indication that the absolute ease of obtaining information has meant ‘a’ truth is available within nano seconds, at the click of a button – we’re being hoodwinked into believing that efficiency is a byword for accuracy.
Kim Bui’s suggestion that journalists have a responsibility to reveal how they arrived at the facts as well as showing those facts, is an interesting one, though we wonder here how that can play out without appearing condescending.
Facebook fake news monitoring
It was inevitable that sooner or later this article would make mention Facebook. And here we are. Actually, the tech company has taken steps which are in many ways very positive: Zuckerberg has displayed a shift in attitude when he said recently that Facebook is “a new kind of platform for public discourse – and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations” – a welcome admission that the function of the platform is now more than a purely tech one, and as such needs to take measures to address this.
In practice this means they’ll be working with fact checking organisations to create a new feature that will allow readers to flag news stories as fake and trigger investigation by one or more of the participants.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this – and something that links into what we’ve just mentioned – is that readers will be able to view the areas the article may have been pulled up for, and see what’s been done about it. It will be fascinating to see what effects this has on the way news (or fake news) appears in feeds. In theory, so they say, a more stringent culture of fact checking should result in fake news articles moving further and further down the page.
Whether or not this works, it’s good to see Facebook taking steps in the right direction. It’s easy to criticize Facebook, as such a massive, powerful company, but we could all take lessons from those critiques: clinging to a process, protocol or system because it was true once or worked once isn’t helpful. Times change, technologies change and the problem needing solving next year might require a solution that hasn’t yet been thought of.
A sign that Facebook’s algorithmic analyses may have moved on, for example, can be seen in the encouraging statement from the company that: “We’ve found that if reading an article makes people significantly less likely to share it, that may be a sign that a story has misled people in some way”. This kind of joined up thinking – and acknowledgement that it’s the relationship between factors that is the most illuminating – should make us all breathe a deep, deep sigh of relief.
Credibility is a necessity for those chasing loyalty
There is also the idea that fake news will shrink back from whence it came faster than you can say ‘Pope endorses Trump for president’, as people reject those ludicrous headlines in favor of ‘proper’ news. David Chavern seems to think so, anyway. We’re already seeing this happening in certain quarters: subscription rates to publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are all reportedly increasing, quite probably as a reaction against the journalistic fallout of the US presidential election (yes, that old chestnut again). Any publication operating on a subscription model is going to be motivated by reader loyalty, rather than clicks, and as such needs to pay close attention to fallibility.
Chavern also believes that if most people won’t visit a site because they come to believe it’s peddling only fake news items, “great companies won’t want to play there” either – bad news for anyone reliant on advertising revenue.
Of course, all this is predicated on the notion that the publishers in question are responsible, truth-loving folk seeking to uphold fundamental journalistic values, and of course there are going to be those that continue to be lured by the promise of high page views and clicks and the kind of revenue that this currently generates. But surely it’s time to acknowledge that that ship has sailed. As we’ve said numerous times before on these pages, you can’t please everyone and nor should you try to.
Which leads us to…. trust
“Trust, regardless of a media company’s political leanings or institutional beliefs, is where news brands can and will continue to thrive in the future”, says Michael Kuntz in his tellingly titled article ‘Trust is the new click’. Let’s hope so.
- Deconstructing the echo chamber one piece at a time
- What we learned about journalism from the US election
- Everyone’s chasing real-time analytics, but what are they learning and what is it doing to journalism?
Transparency is important in life, in general. For anyone working in journalism in a time when distrust of the media seems never to have been greater, openness about both process, facts and sources is one way to claw back respect from a skeptical reader base.
“For too long, the work of journalism has been as much of a black box as Facebook’s algorithm,” says Josh Stearns, the associate director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. If there’s an idea that the media are indeed a ‘liberal elite’, then shielding the machinations of the news story only creates further distance.
Not convinced? David Farenthold, a reporter with the Washington Post laid out his research (into Trump’s charitable donations, or lack thereof) on Twitter, and these photographs of his thorough, slightly boring (and therefore perversely fascinating) field notes were there for all and sundry to see, updated as he had new information and on the very platform Mr Trump favors.
— David Fahrenthold (@Fahrenthold) September 2, 2016
“I was looking for a way to make the futility look interesting and give people something to follow.“ In one fell swoop, Farenthold was able to show the mundanity of the journalistic process – something rarely seen – and the diligence required to send a story to print and a medium that was visually arresting.
Stop blaming, start innovating
Here’s another solution to fake news, as raised by Jeff Jarvis:
“We should be going to the social platforms, speaking the language there, respecting their context, and using the devices they provide – memes, video, photos, dancing GIFs if that’s what it takes – to bring journalistic value to the conversations that now occur without us.”
All the solutions to fake news that we’re seeing share certain things in common: staying true to the core values and time-honored processes of journalism, but utilizing the wealth of technology that’s now available to us. Technology allows us unprecedented access to information, audiences and the means to present all that information in ever more innovative ways.
There isn’t – and shouldn’t – be a single solution for the fake news problem, because, as Adam Tinworth says, “the problem is much bigger than just fake news. The problem is that our new systems of trust – in Google, in Facebook – are shaping how people view many subjects – and that’s open to exploitation.” In fact, I would assert that the more ways we find to counter fake news and, more accurately, the culture it represents, the more chance we have of (a) reaching more readers, (b) creating a more engaged audience, and (c) reinvigorating trust and discourse in journalism. We can’t wait.