Like a light switch, people in the media have woken up to the terrible fact that consumers are reading, sharing, and believing information that they get from the Internet that is often factually inaccurate, and sometimes purposely fake.
Fake News isn’t a problem that appeared overnight. But the results of the election have raised the specter that the Democrats brought a knife to a gun fight, trying to combat a Tweeting candidate – with old world television, rope line politics, and a well-financed ground game.
How could it be that a sharp-elbowed, harshly combative candidate with an out of control campaign of endless accusations, high school bullying, and digitally empowered media missiles could distract the media away from the issues, and instead to a series of salacious Twitter taunts?
And yet – here we are.
The answer is painfully clear in the rear view mirror. Consumers – let’s call them citizens – were subject to an endless barrage of unfiltered information. It began almost fifteen years ago.
A new kind of television pitted a class of untrained amateurs against each other. First on an island, then in a ‘board room,’ these shows were given the moniker “Reality” TV. What television insiders know all too well is that they were anything but. While the industry called them ‘unscripted’ there were staged, scripted, rigged contests in which controversies were crafted, conflicts inflicted, and the attractive and popular contestants came out on top.
Donald Trump was far more than Reality TV talent. He was the co-creator and host of one of the format’s most successful shows – The Apprentice – for fourteen years. He obsessed over the ratings, built his famous catchphrase: “You’re Fired” into a sharp-tongued brand, and learned just what the viewing audience hungered for. They wanted the promise of gold-plated fame, and win or lose; they wanted to watch the strivers fail. A modern day Coliseum – with Romans and Lions replaced by hopeful Apprentice cast members. Donald Trump was the Lion – and he always won.
Fifteen years ago the American public was told that Islands, Bachelors, and Board Rooms were “Real” – and that was the beginning of a blurring of fact and fiction.
At the same time – the arrival of Fox News changed what was labeled news. Until 1996, when Fox News launched its “fair and balanced” network, news had agreed to some shared principals. But the demands of filling a twenty-four-hour schedule, combined with a new competitor that was willing to turn information and fact-checked journalism into a politically aligned schedule of hard-right hosts, changed the game forever.
While those of us who are careful consumers of information understand the distinction between ‘news’ presenters on CNN and hosts like Nancy Grace on Headline News, most viewers fail to see the difference. Why does the New York Times pride itself in objective, meticulously researched news on its front page, but allow strongly worded options on its editorial page, and columnists like Maureen Dowd on its columnist masthead? While you may understand that distinction – it’s unreasonable to presume that average readers do.
So – to recap. Reality TV, Cable News, The Blurring of News and Editorial Voices – and then, the big change. The Internet and mobile.
At first the iPhone was a phone and a music device. But as sites have gotten faster, and connectivity fatter – the smart phone has emerged as the content consumption device of our time.
It’s a terrible convergence of phenomenon. Content creation explodes, creating an unfiltered firehose of raw information, click-bait headlines, and editorial that is alluring. The most shocking, dramatic, daring content fights to elbow it’s way out of the noise, clamoring for your attention and shares.
At the same time this tsunami of content is being driven – without any political bias or editorial filter – into the narrowest of content consumption devices. Your tiny, handheld, WiFi-connected smart phone.
So we’ve arrived. Truth and fiction are thrown into a digital blender and come out as the un-sexy but ubiquitous ‘content’ feed.
Separating “fake” news from “real” news isn’t easy. And, perhaps most disturbingly – none of the companies who are distributing and amplifying ‘fake’ news has any motivation to limit or remove these pernicious but popular content items.
Consider CBS Chief Les Moonves, who said without a hint of irony during the election: “Donald Trump may be bad for America, but he’s good for CBS.” One has to wonder what the internal data shows at Facebook and Twitter regarding the topics and posts that get the most acceleration on their platforms. No doubt the more shocking and salacious the more clicks, shares, and views.
So here’s where we find ourselves. News used to come in packages that clearly identified what it was. No one would confuse the Weekly World News at the supermarket check out with The Wall Street Journal. Each had its place, and readers didn’t have to be ‘media literate’ to keep them in distinctly different baskets.
But the shift from print to the mobile web mushes together all media into a similar looking stream of posts. On Facebook, no one knows you’re a dog. Also, know one really knows the difference between the Denver Post and the Denver Guardian. Hint, one is an established newspaper with writers, editors, and fact checking. The other is a fake news site published by Jestin Coler, with stories totally made up out of his active imagination and published from his home in the suburbs of L.A.
So the solution isn’t to abolish or filter out ‘Fake’ news. Creating an algorithm that can define Fake News is taking on a game of whack-a-mole that’s sure to fail.
But – there is a solution. It requires a series of steps, but each of them is achievable.
First, give a new generation of readers to tools to self-curate the sources and voices that they want. If I want information from the NY Times, WSJ, and NBC News, that should be a preference I can set without trusting an algorithm to do it for me. If I want Breitbart – then sure – feed me that. Then, have a not-for-profit group that gathers fact based media companies to create and publish a set of standards for what is “news” and what is “opinion” – and have those organizations sign on to these shared standards. News organizations that agree to things like fact checking, publishing the source of facts and quotes, and agreeing to a policy for corrections would be listed as “Fact-Based News” and those sources would be shared with search engines and social networks. They could, if they so chose, give users the ability to filter based on “Fact based” or “opinion” or mark posts with a shared icon for Fact-based or Opinion storytelling. The Trust Project is based at Santa Clara University is working to be part of the solution. They explain their mission this way: “The project crafts tangible digital strategies to fulfill journalism’s basic pledge: to serve society with a truthful, intelligent and comprehensive account of ideas and events.”
The Trust Project’s founding funder was Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, as part of craigconnects’ Trustworthy Journalism Initiative. Google is contributing financing to the Trust Project. The project is also supported by the Markkula Foundation.
In their site’s description of their foundational efforts, they say “How can serious journalism set itself apart in the digital realm?” Yes, indeed.
Solving what the media now agrees is the problem of “Fake News” isn’t about getting better robots. It’s about agreeing on a clear set of honest labels and then getting publishers, platforms, and social networks to share that information with their users.
Doing this won’t be easy – but it is achievable, important, and urgent.
So let’s get started.
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