Fake news isn’t new, but for most of history, it has been the province of conspiracy theorists and weird family members with a chip on their shoulder. Before the web, the only way you would run across these kinds of stories was to buy a National Enquirer at the checkout stand. Stories about Elvis living a secret life as a scuba instructor in Belize had little consequence. But one of the unintended consequences of the democratization of information on the web is that it gave a wider platform to fake news—which, these days, might be better called by its real name: propaganda.
The results of the 2016 U.S. presidential race have brought the dilemma of misinformation to the forefront. However, the problem has been brewing for a long time and has been moving toward the mainstream in ways that should make all journalists (and any informed citizen) angry. The constant drumbeat of anti-media sentiment has been growing during the past decade or two. Think about Sarah Palin railing against “the lame-stream media” or President Donald Trump’s constant claims that the media lies about him. The far-left isn’t much better. What it comes down to, in this day and age, is any media outlet that doesn’t agree with you gets labeled as biased—no matter how rooted in fact the news or opinion may be.
Meanwhile, people seeking refuge from facts moved toward the fringe, feeling that conspiracy theories were somehow more “true.” At the same time, news was moving away from being a “loss leader” for major networks, becoming profit generators for the likes of CNN and FOX News—complete with a 24-hour news cycle that demanded personalities and their often inflammatory opinions to fill the time and grab audiences. Suddenly, people who might have once watched Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw were getting their news from Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Then the problem got worse with the mass adoption of the web and the rise of people such as Alex Jones and his infowars.com—which is classified by U.S. News & World Report as a fake news site. As I write this column, it was requesting readers to sign a petition asking “Donald Trump to Fight Back Against ‘Fake News’ Attacks.” (It was also selling snake oil in the form of “Silver Bullet—Colloidal Silver,” which the site says “has applications for both preparedness and regular use.”)
How do we fix this?
Well, Facebook and Google are already trying to expurgate fake news sites from their advertising networks, removing the profit motive for these sites. But there remains the problem of distribution. Many of these sites build their following via social media. Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next—a trade group that represents premium media companies—wrote a letter to the CEOs of Facebook and Google, calling on them to do more. He writes, “In a world where ever-increasing numbers of people get their news and information through globally scaled, algorithmically determined ‘feeds,’ it is simply unacceptable to tolerate the blatantly false and misleading ‘fake news’ that has come to litter the digital landscape.”
This is going to be especially important in coming years. It’s easy to imagine how the American appetite for disinformation and propaganda could easily be used to warp the truth over the next 4 years.
Traditional journalism is more important than ever—and so is the public’s willingness to support it with their dollars. I’ll defer to Kint, because he puts it succinctly: “We’re not suggesting that our members always ‘get it right,’ but accuracy, depth and fairness are core to their mission. And transparency is vital when things go wrong.”
Still, there is hope for social networks. Think about the 2016 protests at Standing Rock. Often ignored by the mainstream media—which wasn’t always the media’s fault, as journalists were sometimes turned away by law enforcement—protesters used social media to spread their message and raise money to support their efforts. Was every report that emanated from protesters strictly unbiased or 100% factual? No, but there was no denying video of protesters being shot with water cannons in the freezing temperatures. The power of social media eventually worked in protesters’ favor and showed us all what access to information can do.