Fake news is clouding public discourse and fueling an already polarized climate. Is it something we have to deal with from now on, or can we make strides against it?
The term “fake news” secured a dubious place in the history books by being synonymous with the 2016 U.S. election. Does that mean we’re struck with it for good?
To explore whether fake news is now a permanent fixture of society, it’s important to first define the term, examine what set the stage for its ascendancy and then look at whether there’s anything that can be done about it.
What is fake news?
Defining “fake news” is more complex than one might think. The panel for “Mind the Gap: News – Is It Fake?,” a civic presentation on fake news held Sept. 19 in Minneapolis, USA, came up with several parameters for a definition.
The three panelists seemed to agree it was easier, at first, to define the term “fake news” in the negative. That is to say, fake news is not:
- A hoax: “The term ‘fake news’ has changed dramatically since its invention,” said Scott Libin, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It used to refer to what we’d call a ‘hoax’ – ‘news’ that was entirely fabricated and was meant to be spread widely. A lot of what we’d call ‘fake news’ today isn’t entirely made up. Part of it is, but it’s meant to be believable.”
- An innocent error or omission: Maria Reeve, assistant managing editor for news at the Star Tribune, noted most major media outlets have best practices to avoid mistakes in the first place, and then strive to visibly correct them on the record when they do occur.
- A point of view: Reeve and Libin also pointed out that news with information or a viewpoint a consumer doesn’t like is often branded “fake news” as a means of discrediting it. That doesn’t mean the material it contains is necessarily inaccurate or false.
Ruling out those three left the panel in agreement that fake news can be one of two things: An outright false or misleading piece of content masquerading as information gathered under journalistic principles, or an epithet for news a consumer disagrees with and chooses not to recognize. Material that fits either definition can cloud the waters and interfere with genuine public discourse.
How did we get here?
In the case of either definition of fake news, its rise to prominence has been fueled largely by two things.
The first: Social media, because it plays a significant role in our lives and makes sharing information almost effortless. Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles are made specifically for the creation of online persona – that is, digital representation of one’s likes, dislikes, views and attitudes – so they’re a natural place to distribute content that aligns with those facets of a user’s personality. Social media platforms also make it incredibly easy to put a piece of content in front of one’s followers of friends, and there’s no mechanism for checking whether that content is fair or accurate – or if the sharer has even read the whole things before sending it out.
A second reason fake news has become more prominent has to do with Internet advertising models. In many instances, a platform is paid by how many clicks a piece of content gets. Thus, an inflammatory or sensational item might get more clicks than a less intriguing but completely verifiable article. With this model, a creator has an incentive to grab people’s attention, and an easy way to do that is to tap into deeply held beliefs, like politics, and write something a reader is likely to distribute because it validates his or her opinions. For some content creators, the truth of that content doesn’t come into play.
Is there anything we can do about it?
It isn’t easy for news consumers to determine what’s fact and what’s fiction, but resources and techniques do exist for separating the two.
- Be discriminating: “Know what you’re reading,” advised Reeve. “Know where your information is coming from.” There are many ways to do that, but the panelists mentioned three specifically:
- Cross-check the content: While it’s true there are scoops, they don’t last long. The news cycle never sleeps, so if a story is real, it won’t exist only in one place for too long. Other news outlets will jump on it and get their version up quite quickly. That means a news story that exists only in one place likely lacks integrity.
- Examine the address: Look at the domain name of an Internet-based story. It’s often an easy way to spot a fraud in one glance. For example, abcnews.com.co, for example, is widely regarded as a source of fake news. Its domain name was made to look like abcnews.com, the website for respects U.S. news network ABC News.
- Scrutinize the storyteller: Does the reporter have a profile or other online presence? Most legitimate news outlets will have at least the basics online.
- Employ technology: Social media platforms shouldn’t be demonized, because they can be powerful newsgathering tools. As a safeguard against fake news, Reuters journalists use Reuters News Tracer, a proprietary algorithm that employs over 700 signals to determine whether trending topics are newsworthy and truthful. The social media listening tool was taught by journalists to ask key questions, consult historical data, and weigh relevance just like a human would, but within 40 milliseconds. Tracer then takes the tweets themselves and, through natural language processing, generates a short summary for the event cluster alongside other helpful indicators.
- Cross–pollinate: Many commentators have noted how modern-day news consumers only select content that fits their worldview (a phenomenon called confirmation bias). With filtering and a polarized news environment, it’s easier than ever not to be exposed to new ideas. Willfully stretching beyond one’s bubble, so speak, isn’t easy, but there seems to be agreement that it’s a necessary antidote to the echo chamber effect caused by consuming news only from a few sources.
Check out the process and methodology behind Reuters News Tracer in our 2016 Annual Report and view our recorded demo to see Tracer in action.
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