Fake News Today: most people don’t understand how today’s information cycle really works.

Many have no idea of how much their general worldview is influenced by the way the news is generated online.

WHAT BEGINS ONLINE ENDS OFFLINE

A blog isn’t small if its puny readership is made of TV produces and writers for national newspapers.

By “blog”, I’m referring collectively to all online publishing. That’s everything from Twitter accounts to major newspaper websites to web videos to group blogs with hundreds of writers.

I don’t care whether the owners consider themselves blogs or not. The reality is that they are all subject to the same incentives, and they fight for attention with similar tactics.

Radio DJs and news anchors once filled their broadcasts with newspaper headlines; today they repeat what they read on blogs – certain blogs more than others.

Fake news has made a vulnerable industry ripe for exploitation.

Click to Tweet

BLOGS ARE OUR FILTER

Stories from blogs also filter into real conversations and rumors that spread from person to person through word of mouth.

In short, blogs are vehicles from which mass media reporters – and your most chatty and “informed” friends – discover and borrow the news.

This hidden cycle gives birth to the memes that become our cultural references, the budding starts who become our celebrities, the thinkers who become our gurus, and the news that becomes our news.

The result is a vulnerable industry that is ripe for exploitation. Whether that is the Donald shaping the electorate game through his rambunctious tweets, or the £350m NHS lie that pushed a nation over the Brexit cliff edge.

LEARN THE RULES CHANGE THE GAME

That’s all it takes to control public opinion.

It is true for celebrity gossip, politics, business news, and every other topic blogs cover. The constraints of blogging create artificial content, which is made real and impacts the outcome of real world events.

The economics of the internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important – and more profitable – than the truth.

With the mass media – and today, mass culture – relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications.

Blog needs traffic, being the first drives traffic, and so entire stories are created out of whole cloth to make that happen. This is just one facet of the economics of blogging, but it’s a critical one.

Bloggers are under incredible pressure to produce, leaving little time for research or verification, let alone for speaking to sources.

In some cases, the story they are chasing is so crazy that they don’t want to risk doing research, because the whole façade would collapse.

Recklessness, laziness, however you want to categorize it, the attitude is openly tolerated and acknowledged.

THE FAKE NEWS JUGGERNAUT CONTINUES...

The fake news blitz rolls on, primarily on social media sites, polarising viewpoint and seeding division in its wake.

Encountering a bombardment of objection from both political leaders and also the "traditional" media, several of the most significant internet companies have developed their very own strategies to resolve this issue.

Google has advanced its "fact check" system, that "dentifies articles that include information fact checked by news publishers and fact-checking organisations", placing a tag on them to validate this.

Facebook has positioned advertisements in significant newspapers, removed "tens of thousands of fake accounts" and also developed code that "automatically spots fake news".

At the same time, Wikipedia introduced its very own counter to fake news, WikiTribune, with the bold statements that: "The news is broken and we can fix it."

Like Wikipedia itself, WikiTribune exists through crowdsourcing - developing an community of volunteers and reporters, in a comparable way to Wikipedia's own volunteer editors.

A TALE OF TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES

The two different strategies exhibit the manner in which Google and Facebook vary from Wikipedia - and symbolise two very different viewpoints regarding the Internet.

Facebook and Google make use of the suggestion that computer systems (and the algorithms whereby they work) are unbiased and neutral, a suggestion that enables them (to a specific level) to stay clear of taking much blame for the content they connect to or hold.

Wikipedia employs the assistance of "good" people, who it thinks can be impartial and "neutral" (the "neutral viewpoint" is among the "Five Pillars" that is the foundation of Wikipedia).

BUT NEITHER OF THESE APPROACHES ARE TRULY REAL

Fake news and Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia boss Jimmy Wales: trusting people’s objectivity in the fight against fake news

There is increasing proof that, instead of getting rid of or counteracting biases, algorithms could embed, exaggerate and exacerbate them.

Wikipedia's "neutral point of view" is not only theoretically doubtful, but has actually been shown not to be real - for example in connection with sexism (it's well known that the substantial majority of Wikipedia editors are males which and this is mirrored in the way gender is frequently represented on Wikipedia).

Facebook experienced both issues in one episode in August 2016.

When it was disclosed that Facebook's trending news platform, as opposed to being simply purely mathematical as several had actually thought, was in fact "curated and tweaked" by humans, there was outrage, specifically from US conservatives, that accused Facebook of inserting liberal prejudice.

Facebook responded by firing its editorial team with the purpose of generating a more neutral, algorithmic system. The outcome was close to farcical as it was false and occasionally ludicrous stories were advertised by the algorithm.

WHICH WAS WORSE?

Prejudiced human participation or the algorithms? Both have considerable issues - as well as these issues are both practical as well as theoretical.

To add to this mess comes another element. Undoubtedly "fake news", fake stories, intentionally developed to misinform, are only part of the issue. 

One more acquainted method for the "traditional" media: utilising verifiable facts to form a truly whimsical story.

The development of numerous of anti-immigration articles - that "health tourism" and "benefit tourism" are considerable issues, for instance they utilize actual information taken out of context that is backed with manipulated statistics to generate a viral fake news story.

In the United States, the unfavourable reports regarding Hillary Clinton's emails were based upon an actual investigation, yet the stories that were created around them and the narrative into which they were woven was something very different.

NO EASY FIX

Fake news in the mainstream media

The ‘mainstream’ media has to work to regain public trust.

The first thing that we have to be clear about is that there is no easy solution to this. Claims like that of WikiTribune that they will "fix" the fake news problem are far from the truth. 

To locate a way forward we should dig a little much deeper.

Part of the issue is the growing public frustration with the mainstream media - and the media itself has to take some of the blame for that. 

If these news outlets are not attended hold politicians and others to appropriate account - but instead appear to help them weave fake news narratives and escape with lies and manipulations, it is tough for people to trust them.

That in turn leaves room for fake news to compete, even if that after that exacerbates the problem.

The fake narratives are additionally, however, a clue to the first part of the way forward: better "conventional" journalism.

Around the Brexit vote and the United States presidential election, substantial parts of the media failed to hold politicians to account, to expose manipulations and lies.

This has to change.​

The second even more vital - and more difficult - part of the solution is to minimize the dependancy on Facebook as an information source.

This works both ways: newspapers and reporters need to resist using Facebook as a platform for their stories, and people need be discouraged away from using Facebook as a method to find information.

No quantity of tweaking of algorithms or removal of fake accounts can respond to the fact that systems such as Facebook are produced specifically for the sharing of information - and misinformation.

And the purveyors of fake news are specialists at gaming algorithms, so whatever Facebook does, they will discover a means around it.​

THE ONLY REMEDY IS TO QUIT PLAYING THE GAME

That's easier said than done - these social networks have ended up being a big part of so many lives.

That we are becoming more aware with the issue with fake news is at least a beginning - but unfortunately its not a problem that will be disappearing anytime soon.

James Jarvis signature

Leave your comment