How Media and Tech Can Tackle the Fake News Problem
Deep down, most people really do want to know the truth.
At least, that's what any good journalist hopes is true. Reporting the truth is the basis of the modern journalistic tradition, and honest reporting helps to build an informed, functioning and free democracy. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics lists this concept as its very first principle: Seek truth and report it.
However, there is another, less palatable human urge that runs parallel to the pursuit of truth. In the 1960s, Peter Wason conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that people favor information that supports their preexisting beliefs, a phenomenon he called "confirmation bias." Confirmation bias is so powerful that it can override reason, leading people to tune out their critical faculties and instead drink in information that confirms their own views.
Between truth-seeking and confirmation bias, you find the wild and weird world of online journalism, where reputable journalism lives side-by-side with flagrantly inventive stories and hyper-partisan shock pieces.
In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the domain of online news became a particularly unruly landscape. Misleading news articles saturated the web and popped up in Facebook feeds like errant mushrooms, causing cascading damage to the media ecosystem. In July 2016, for example, a fake news website reported that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President. Actually, he offered no endorsement, but told Americans to "[s]tudy the proposals well, pray, and choose in conscience." The story racked up over 950,000 Facebook comments, shares and likes.
Today, fake news is garnering intense discussion and debate. Did misleading and hyper-partisan news influence national politics? If so, how? Should something be done? Who is responsible for the change, and how do you make such a change without endangering free speech?
The percentage of news stories that are fake or deeply distorted is not yet known. However, it is possible to gauge how much engagement with fake news may have occurred on social media recently. A Buzzfeed News analysis shows that the 20 best-performing "false election stories" generated over 8.7 million social media engagements on Facebook during the three months prior to the election. In contrast, the top 20 genuine news articles from reputable news sources only generated 7.3 million engagements. According to one (albeit limited) analysis, fake news is not only prevalent—it's sometimes dominant.
Unfortunately, fake news is also profitable. Companies that produce it have the potential to generate just as many clicks and shares as legitimate news media, but with less overhead. Freed from reliance on fact-based reporting, fake news websites can skip the expenses associated with real journalism. Fake news writers are often independent contractors who can produce articles from anywhere in the world.
Given the profitability of fake news, how can professional news media companies compete? Employing professional journalists, gathering facts, vetting for accuracy, employing sharp-eyed and experienced editors, processes of accountability – all of these become uncompensated expenses when fake news can compete on the same footing as professional news media. It makes sense, then, that most efforts to quash the spread of fake news are oriented toward changing the playing field itself. How can social media platforms ensure that fake news doesn't masquerade as legitimate journalism? And how can they reward the type of quality journalism that helps our democracy to function?
In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 62% of Americans get news on social media. Facebook is far and away the most popular social media platform for U.S. adults, and a majority of Facebook users get news from the site. Predictably, then, the social media giant has borne most of the scrutiny for enabling the spread of fake news. (Google, which controls over 60% of the U.S. search engine marketplace and dispenses revenue to websites through its Google AdSense program, has also felt the heat.)
As this problem attracts more attention, many have called on Facebook to implement a rating system to label low-quality or fake news in the newsfeed. Facebook even has the power to take it a step further, limiting the reach of false and misleading news, perhaps by showing it less often or denying access to paid "boosts" or ads that extend its reach. Still, many questions remain about the appropriate role of social media companies. The unilateral power to label news as legitimate or illegitimate is ripe for misuse, with potentially disastrous consequences.
However, online media's "Wild West" environment is certainly harmful as well. Is there a way to reign in fake news without falling victim to censorship or partisan politics? Recently, Salon.com contributor Bob Cesca suggested one way to hit back. A coalition of media experts could form a "fact summit"—a group to monitor and assess news sources for veracity. To be seen as trustworthy, Cesca maintains, this group must be multi-partisan, with experts chosen from all over the political spectrum.
Should Facebook or Google choose to use a third party to evaluate news sources—whether that third party be some version of the "fact summit" or another vetting group—this could go a long way toward informing social media users. It would also sidestep the issue of Facebook itself becoming an arbiter of newsworthiness, a role which Zuckerberg said the company should avoid.
Professional media must also contribute to this effort. There has never been a more important time for legacy media companies to produce high-quality news that adheres to the highest standards of journalistic integrity. Subject to the same pressures as fake news media companies, professional journalists should take care not to compromise what makes them uniquely valuable. The sped-up news cycle associated with online reportage, and the fierce competition for clicks and shares, must be balanced with a sober commitment to integrity and accountability.
Further, journalists and editors can show their support for a third-party consortium of experts who can provide guidance to media consumers about the quality and veracity of news websites. Reputable media companies can also support proactive efforts by tech giants like Google, which recently restricted certain types of misleading and false news sites from serving advertisements through their Google AdSense program. And pressure must be brought to bear on Facebook, which has the power to develop a fair and transparent process to prioritize or label legitimate news in the newsfeed — ideally with the help of a politically neutral, third-party evaluator.
Ultimately, only a comprehensive effort will yield a media environment where the contributions of professional, honest news media are justly rewarded. Major players in tech and media, working together with a shared vision, can create the kind of environment where high-quality, honest and accountable journalism is rewarded — and prioritized.