Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Why fake news is beating traditional news

Traditional news organizations made a deal with the devil when they turned to social media and search-engine optimization to gain digital audience and revenue.

They recruited "community managers" to raise their profile on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. They tagged their articles to raise them in search results.

The devilish side of the deal was that presumably ethical news media were trying to sell credibility and verified information -- facts -- within a turbulent ocean of emotion. On social media, feelings are more important than facts. People want to declare who they are and what they believe. So they "like" and share stuff that reinforces their view of who they are and what they agree with. Emotions predominate over facts.

Versión en español

Articles that are popular, shared, and linked to will rise to the top of search results in Google and other search engines. It's easy to share or like something that reinforces your view of who you are.

Misreading the data

So the post-election idea now being championed by many journalists that Facebook and other social media should be fact-checked, and that fake news stories could be eliminated from social media shows they misunderstand the new media dynamics.

Craig Silverman, an investigative journalist who specializes in how to verify information on the Internet, wrote how fake news outperformed real news on Facebook during the last three months of the election campaign. Mainstream media were less relevant in the social sphere.

To his point: The momentum of a false news story about anti-Trump protesters that began on Twitter and attracted hundreds of thousands of likes, shares, etc. was not slowed down at all by several articles that showed it was clearly false. Even the original author, who realized he was mistaken, couldn't slow it down when he posted a big red "FALSE" on his original tweet. 

Lots of media colleagues have been arguing that fake news helped Trump win the election. But  they are confusing the symptom with the disease.

The rise of fake news has more to do with the declining relevance of traditional news media, both as businesses (Google and Facebook have taken all their advertising revenue) and as credible sources of information.

Media types like me (my paid subscriptions: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, The Economist) saw our views reflected in those publications. What we ignored is that these kinds of print media are no longer as trusted by the public at large. People don't care what the New York Times says.

The Gallup organization recently found that the percentage of Americans who expressed "a great deal" or "fair amount" of "trust and confidence" in mass media has declined steadily over the past two decades to a new low of 32%.

Pew Research Center's poll on trust and accuracy in the news media showed that news media are barely more trustworthy than family and friends in the minds of U.S. adults (graphic below). And while people distrust "social media", that doesn't include the people they know -- friends, family and acquaintances.

Few have a lot of confidence in information from professional news outlets or friends and family, though majorities show at least some trust in both, but social media garners less trust than either

The decline in trust of the press is a global trend and runs in tandem with a decline in trust of many institutions. In a poll by the Reuters Institute, people in 26 countries were asked to respond to the statement that "you can trust most of the news most of the time". The percent who agreed was highest in Finland, with 65%, and Greece was lowest with 20%. In between were Germany 52%, U.K. 50%, Spain 47%, Japan 43%, and the U.S. 33%.

Given this level of distrust, we should question the idea put forth by journalists in the U.K. and the U.S. that a blizzard of "certified" facts from traditional news organizations about Brexit or Hillary or Donald would have changed anyone's mind in the voting booth. What's more, identifying the truth is complicated, as The Guardian's John Naughton has pointed out. Just because a normally reliable news outlet publishes something is no guarantee that it is true.

Media of the people 

Media empires have been built on the notion that people want to be thrilled, entertained, and made to feel good about themselves rather than being educated. You can become fabulously wealthy betting on that side of human nature. And usually feeling good about oneself also means feeling superior to someone else. Political empires have also been built on this notion.

In August, John Herrman of the New York Times published an article that demonstrated the irrelevance of traditional news media and their focus on issues and facts: "Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine: How a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds."

Herrman showed how media that exist only on Facebook had been influencing discourse about the political campaign, with advocacy from the left and the right. “These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook, and you’ve probably never heard of them. They have names like Occupy Democrats; The Angry Patriot; US Chronicle; Addicting Info; RightAlerts; Being Liberal; Opposing Views; Fed-Up Americans; American News; and hundreds more.”

It was in that space that people were talking with their friends and deciding who to vote for. Polls and traditional media missed this conversation or underestimated its importance.

Journalism's response

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, responded to all the uproar by explaining why he thinks fake news is not a problem on the platform.

Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and John Borthwick came up with some suggestions for how Facebook and other social platforms should handle fake news. Among them was cutting off advertising revenue to obviously fake sites. "We do not believe that the platforms should be put in the position of judging what is fake or real, true or false as censors for all. We worry about creating blacklists. And we worry that circular discussions about what is fake and what is truth and whose truth is more truthy masks the fact that there are things that can be done today."

Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post is urging Facebook to hire an executive editor to police the traffic.

Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for the New York Times, argued that if there is not an aggressive effort to counter fake news, it will drown out facts.

Evidence for optimism: Traditional media still matter

The Reuters Institute study mentioned above, which was completed before the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, offered a more sanguine view of credibility of traditional media. "Our research suggests that even in the era of social media and atomised media, news organisations and traditional news brands still matter enormously."

It went on: "Although aggregators and social media are important gateways to news, most of the content consumed still comes from newspaper groups, broadcasters, or digital born brands that have invested in original content. Across all of our 26 countries over two-thirds of our sample (69%) access a newspaper brand online each week, with almost as many (62%) accessing the online service of a broadcasting outlet." 

Fiction too close to the truth

I want to be that optimistic. Optimism requires a generous assessment of humanity and a trust in human beings' basic sense of fairness and justice. Some days I can achieve it.

By chance, I just finished reading Numero Zero, a satirical novel about the Italian media by the best-selling author Umberto Eco. It portrays a group of hard-bitten, hard-up newspaper hacks hired by a multimillionaire to launch a newspaper that will predict future events. The time period was 1992, when Italy was in the midst of a huge political corruption scandal.

Eco treated readers to editorial staff meetings in which the publisher encouraged journalists to write stories that insinuated, manipulated, equivocated, twisted, distorted, and outright lied about known facts to achieve business and political ends. All of the half-dozen journalists on staff were up to the task, as they had plenty of experience cocking up stories built on labyrinthine conspiracy theories. Wicked stuff, but uncomfortably close to the truth about the way media operate.

I laughed at the truth I could see in Eco's novel, but I was hoping that the optimistic folks at Reuters had it right, that humanity would ultimately redeem itself and actively search for the truth. The only way to help that along is to find ways to produce the highest quality journalism and do all in our power to see that it becomes part of the public discourse.


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