Fixing Fake News
A reader asked me this question about fake news the other day: “given that the media gets First Amendment protection and other benefits (e.g. postage) because it’s essential to “an informed citizenry,” how can they be “held accountable,” in the current phrase, for doing such an incomplete job?
The reader – a five-decade friend – leans gently left but he is solidly in the range of those who can accept an idea even if it does not help his argument.
Fixing fake news probably requires an understanding of why it exists in the first place.
“I have been musing on all of the things people believe… that are demonstrably untrue,” my friend said. He then listed six right wing talking points and concluded, “I am sure there are comparable beauties on the left.”
True there are, but it was interesting that none came immediately to his mind. Keep my friend’s observations in mind as you read about a video created by an independent journalist called Tim Pool. Or you can watch it yourself to be sure I am describing it correctly.
A Few Contributors to Fake News
Pool suggests different categories of fake news. See if you find a trend relating to money.
- Some stories are entirely made up to serve the interest of someone with an axe to grind. Since there are more would-be writers than dollars to provide them with decent livings, it is tempting to make rent by writing whatever someone tells you to write. This is also called public relations. Or spin.
- Some stories are hyper-partisan. Someone clueless might write them or they might simply omit one side of the story entirely.
- Serving an audience that it has painstakingly gathered drives institutional news. Fox found conservatives and MSNBC found liberals. Yes, they also cultivated those audiences. The reporters are hired to meet the ideological views of the consumers, and the propaganda they provide helps the customers feel good about themselves.
- When faced with a mass of choices, what do you click on? Likely something you want to see; something comfortable. Add the smallest level of fatigue and your desire to be disrupted vaporizes.
- Fact checking is easy but when was the last time you Googled an assertion to check it out? Or used Snopes? Or Politifact? I would hate writing the Pinocchio column in The Washington Post “here’s what he said, here’s why it is not quite true, here’s how big a lie it was” zzzzzzzz…
- Marketers and consultants, who sell their services to media outlets that want to stay in business, tell their clients exactly what to say to the desired demographics if they want to stay afloat. It is “Sales 101” to find out what the customer wants then offer to sell it to him.
- Pool asks himself what a journalist is and then replies that he does not know. His own credentials are far from traditional yet he makes a living telling people interesting things. There does not seem to be a license or registration.
- Churnalism was a new word for me. Rewrite other people’s stories to “get lots of content out there.” Writers don’t get paid much for this but they do get paid more than nothing.
- It is difficult to get paid for real reporting because you don’t know what the outcome will be. Will it support your employer’s side or the opposite?
- Pool is not optimistic, ending with two ideas: first, that you are responsible for yourself (read what you don’t agree with); and, second, it is going to get worse.
A Proposed Remedy
To counter these trends, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, announced plans for a new global news website aimed at countering the rise of fake news. The service, Wikitribune, will be largely ad-free, with most funding coming from donations; supporters will be asked to contribute $15 per month.
Imagine you were a print journalist before the Internet. Your story appeared side-by-side with those written by your colleagues. Nobody really knew which readers read which stories. They just knew how many people bought the paper. Now imagine yourself a digital journalist, which you are even if your employer is a newspaper. You know exactly how many readers clicked on your story and you take steps to build your personal brand and following. If you are concerned about layoffs, you might even compete for clicks by pandering to the audience.
Television (Whatever That Is Now)
The change from over-the-air to cable TV also made a difference. If there are three stations, all of them are generalists. If there are 300 stations all of them are specialists.
As a consumer you are never required to hear, see or read anything that challenges your “network of me.” The Internet promised you the “me” channel and they are delivering it. So is cable TV.
And cable is getting its clock cleaned by cord cutters who consume and even greater variety of news and entertainment on YouTube, Netflix and Hulu.
Statisticians will wonder if I meant confirmation bias (greater belief in stories that agree with your previous position), but I don’t.
Journalists of every variety – print, audio, video, traditionally employed, self-employed – tend to live in the same places. They hang out together, they shop at the same stores, they look trendy in the same ways and they date each other.
Are you surprised that they tend to feel the same way about political issues? This article lays it out for you.
The Elephant in the Room
Farhad Manjoo wrote, “Can Facebook Fix its Own Worst Bug?” for the cover of a recent New York Times Magazine. Here are four excerpts that I found interesting, but you should read his article yourself to see what resonates with you.
“The company, which Zuckerberg co-founded in his Harvard dorm room 13 years ago, has become the largest and most influential entity in the news business, commanding an audience greater than that of any American or European television news network, any newspaper or magazine in the Western world and any online news outlet. It is also the most powerful mobilizing force in politics, and it is fast replacing television as the most consequential entertainment medium.”
“With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.”
“If it’s an exaggeration to say that News Feed has become the most influential source of information in the history of civilization, it is only slightly so. Facebook created News Feed in 2006 to solve a problem: In the social-media age, people suddenly had too many friends to keep up with. At the time, Facebook was just a collection of profiles, lacking any kind of central organization. To figure out what any of your connections were up to, you had to visit each of their profiles to see if anything had changed. News Feed fixed that. Every time you open Facebook, it hunts through the network, collecting every post from every connection — information that, for most Facebook users, would be too overwhelming to process themselves. Then it weighs the merits of each post before presenting you with a feed sorted in order of importance: a hyperpersonalized front page designed just for you.”
“The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth. And it is a particular kind of truth: The News Feed team’s ultimate mission is to figure out what users want — what they find “meaningful,” to use Cox and Zuckerberg’s preferred term — and to give them more of that.”
My friend asked how the media could be held accountable for doing such a poor job?
Regulation is the “go to” response for some, but it is surely the ultimate non-starter and it would do nothing to create trust among the skeptics. Besides who would decide what is true? Surely not the government that is often the subject of the fake news it would seek to regulate.
You now have at least 10 pretty good reasons for the existence of fake news. Maybe it is just up to you to use your critical thinking skills to sort it out for yourself?