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.

Concentration Bias

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?




6 Responses to “Fixing Fake News”

Armand Gilbert, May 13, 2017 at 2:21 pm said:

This is a very good article.
I think that given the limitations of human nature it is impossible to prevent bias, however it might be reasonable to attempt to teach some people to think more critically about their own thought process.
Unfortunately, we have an education system designed to provide employment opportunities for teachers and massive profits for the institutions themselves while churning out a mediocre and obedient product saddled with debt. And this does not lend itself, to the creation of a generation of critically thinking adults, especially in the dog eat dog post boomer economy that the millennials have to contend with.
Perhaps, we shall see more critical minds arise out of the chaos itself as people become more disaffected with the absurdities of popular news media. Or perhaps artificial intelligence will provide a vehicle to distort personal realities to such a degree as to be objectively meaningless.
Given my understanding of people most will choose the blue pill.
Here is an interesting video illustrating just how difficult the task is.


Haven Pell, May 13, 2017 at 3:01 pm said:

Wow Armand, that is quite a video. I wonder how difficult it was for that rather passive free speech sign holder to elicit the response he did. Did it happen on the first try? Did he need several tries? Was there a context to the gathering? What conclusions can be accurately drawn from what we saw?


Armand Gilbert, May 13, 2017 at 6:40 pm said:

From what I understand… those enlightened liberals wearing the masks are Antifa and BLM supporters who staged a rally in the shabby/hip Dalston section of East London outside of the LD50 Gallery. They choose this location because the gallery had decided to host an exhibition featuring a series of vacuous art works by various right wing autists ranging, from pepe the frog tweets to the words and witticisms of Richard Spencer.
This guy is simply what he appears to be, just a guy, holding a sign, Saying…
It pretty much speaks for itself.


Haven Pell, May 14, 2017 at 9:41 am said:

Sounds like it passes the real news test. Thanks for adding it.


GARRARD GLENN, May 13, 2017 at 2:39 pm said:

Time is of the essence. You only really get to understand events with great accuracy and depth
after they have transpired. Did we fully understand all the facts of Watergate as they occurred, day by day? No. We had to wait until it was all over, and then read books about it
to glean all the facts. And the identity of Deep Throat was only revealed 10 years ago.

The same goes, I suspect, for the current Russian/Trump imbroglio. The true facts are not yet
understood by any arm of the media, regardless of media bias. Presumably, all will be revealed one fine day. Until then, we are stuck with mere opinion.

Ditto Vietnam. One’s reading of The Best and the Brightest managed to cast some light on the
decision making processes that lead to that war, and its expansion. After the fact.

There are precious few de Tocquevilles and George Kennans and Frederick Jackson Turners
who can look beneath the surfaces of historical events and eras and see the great subterranean currents that drive current events. Look to them, when they appear relevant.

Finally, most people don’t read what the good folk in the think tanks are thinking and writing. But much of this information is available free online, and some of these people I daresay can offer up analyses of current events superior to what one reads in newspapers, blogs, and what one watches on television. With occasional exceptions.

Good luck! Enjoy the drama, in any event. It doesn’t all have to be true to be gripping and compelling. And you can be sure the people who drive events and report on them know this all too well.


Haven Pell, May 13, 2017 at 3:03 pm said:

Gar, I think you just took the self help route. Well done.


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