The Problem Of Fake News: Can Mainstream Media Fight Back?

5 May 2017

False information, conspiracy theories, online propaganda sites… it’s no lie that the phenomenon of 'fake news', spread across the Internet by the self-sharpening knife of social media and algorithmic technology, has been attacking the media that we consume daily.

The result is a situation where the public are not quite sure which headlines to trust and inform their choices, and which to discard as nonsense. Perhaps even more disconcerting is how, despite a sometimes blatant lack of fact, this online phenomenon has infiltrated our cultural and political beliefs offline to the point of influencing of major world decisions. Indeed, escalating in 2015 and 2016, especially during the US presidential campaigns in November and the Italian constitutional referendum in December, the trend has become a serious threat to politics, businesses, and society at large.

With more key political events in 2017, including the French and German elections, the question is - what can we do about it?

But first, what exactly is fake news, and is it an entirely new phenomenon affecting media? Surely as long as there has news there's been the issue of journalistic spin?

David Aaronovitch , columnist for The Times, author and broadcaster, comments:

"On the one hand, it has always been the case that people have sometimes written up tendentious, slanted stories, or taken a particular edge. Newspapers in Britain, especially the tabloids, have traditionally been very partisan and tended to run stories when there’s a particular political moment and that are in favour of their people or anti- the people they didn’t like.

However, in terms of what’s new about fake news – particularly on websites and so on – is the creation of entirely fictitious stories. That's something they didn’t used to do. They were guilty of exaggeration and so on, but they wouldn’t actually make stuff up in order to get a particular constituency to effectively monetise it by clicking on sites which then earn money as a result (which you can only do because the way in which online material is funded)."

"There is an element of fake news which is entirely new," says David

But there is more feeding the fake news trend than simply its creation: it's rapid dissemination. Social media, for one, has been attributed as a key factor.

As technology expert Jamie Bartlett , the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, wrote in his  opinion column for the Guardian , "There’s a new consensus about what social media is doing to public life... It’s fuelling misunderstanding and catalysing the spread of fake news. And because of self-reinforcing algorithms and the logic of friendship networks, we’re all cocooned with like-minded people and news we already agree with."

Fake news stories get taken up, liked and shared on social media and, as David points out, "We even have a situation now where some political forces are advertising directly to targeted people on facebook with political ads that don’t get seen by anybody else except those people who are immediately targeted, so you can’t even criticise them because you don’t even know they’ve happened unless you are one of the recipients."

Social media has played a key role in the propagation of fake news

In addition to social media, the sophisticated 'mixed' nature of fake news, which can often have some truth weaved within its misinformation, creates an even more confusing concoction for consumers - one fuelled further by the 'loss of the expert' in a post-truth era. Where once journalism represented accurate and honest reporting, nowadays the profession can, arguably, rely too much on a murky mixture of spin and sensationalism that can start to resemble fake news. The result is a public left unsure where to turn in order to check the facts of what they are reading.

"There are very tendentious broadcasters now where there didn’t used to be. We used to think of broadcasting as being by and large gold standard (I mean, a lot of it still is – BBC, ITV News, and so on), and it would really abide by a set of standards about what was accurate and so on. Now, however, some parts of the mainstream media are vulnerable to the accusation that they’re not that scrupulous themselves. Think of the Daily Express. They’re not bad, but they’re not great, and I think some of it come perilously close to being what you might describe as fake news - and yet it’s sold as a newspaper and under the rubric of mainstream news.

And then, what has been created more recently is what you might call state-sponsored and non-independent journalistic sources. I’m particularly thinking of things like the RT station in Russia i.e. stations entirely created for the propagation of a propagandistic view of life; and it can be quite a sophisticated one! For example, RT will emphasise the dangers of refugee crime, and that fits into the agenda of BriteSpark in the States, and they will want some stories that are true, some stories that are false, and some stories that are entirely exaggerated."

Columnist for The Times David Aaronovitch gives his expert opinion

"So, part of the problem is, firstly, people choosing the believe things because it fits in with their preconceived view, whether it’s true or not, and, then, secondly, there are things that are entirely untrue and are put there deliberately to make money or to confuse – and that makes it very difficult for people, where they want to, to try and distinguish between what is true and what is a lie. This is increased by the notion that there are no experts.  There’s no kind of authority, if you like, that you can go to which is more likely to be right than what somebody else likely to be."

So what can we do about it? Type-marking? Crowd-sourcing vetters like on Wikipedia?

"I don’t know if there is a solution other than educating people about what fake news is. We have to use the social media to push back on what lies on social media – you have to point it out, and keep on pointing it out. You have to distinguish the trustworthy from the untrustworthy as much as a possible can. The Chair of the Media Select Committee, who’s always in the news these days, Damian Collins, has been talking about the possibility of getting Google to type mark authoritative sites and so on, and funnily enough it’s an idea I first had about 10 years ago, but it’s not really practical – who does the type-marking, under what circumstances do they use.

And the mainstream media - we have to make sure we’re really good, all the time. All of the demands, in the end, fall on platform providers – so the government needs to keep on making demands on those providers."

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