Mainstream journalists today are being subjected to disintermediation. Anyone with access to the Internet can post most anything posing as “news” on Facebook, Google, YouTube, and a variety of other websites. Journalism as practiced in the 1960s is a distant memory, as when Walter Cronkite of CBS declared that the Vietnam war could not be won and President Lyndon Johnson lamented, “If I have lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
The proliferation of cable channels, talk radio, news websites, and other sources of “news”, most would agree, has plusses and minuses. We no longer have our news delivered by “The Voice of God”, whether it’s Walter Cronkite or Henry Luce’s Time Magazine and we can easily access a wider range of opinion and policy proposals.
But many of us would admit that we tend to access news sources that will reinforce our own biases, and to ignore those outlets that would challenge our opinions. Possibly this has eroded the power of politicians at the “center” and made political compromise in Congress more difficult.
Fake News is reflective of the trend of fragmentation of sources, but different
What fewer would debate is that our country is not well served by “fake news” that undermines the power of an informed citizenry. Educated voters can hold our political leaders to account for policies and actions but world history is replete with the danger if public opinion is based on lies.
There are a number of reasons for the rise of “fake news”, but one especially strong incentive is that you can make a lot of money by creating it. The process is pretty simple and straightforward. Set up a website, create headlines — the more provocative the better — and get advertisers to pay based on the number of visitors to the site.
The New York Times profiled a recent college graduate who makes between $10,000 and $30,000 a month from creating fake news.
His masterpiece: playing on the fear of Trump supporters that there would be a rigged election. His headline: “Breaking: Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.”
None of this was true. The story was illustrated with a stock photo of plastic crates labeled “Ballot Box”, which was actually a photo from an election in Britain. See image above.
“Fake News” content creators are found around the world. Eastern Europe is a particularly fertile ground for such individuals, who need only a computer. Earning $1,000 or $3,000 a month can put the individual at the upper end of the income range in some of these countries.
Fake news technology can now change facial expressions and audio to put false statements into the mouths of anyone a target of fake news and make falsehoods seem believable.
NY Times: 10 Times Trump Spread Fake News
Researchers asked survey respondents whether they had heard various pieces of news on the two presidential candidates. These fell into three categories:
1) News that was true
2) News that had been posted that was fake
3) News that researchers created that was fake “fake news”. In other words, it had never been circulated.
In the second category, 15.3% of respondents remembered seeing the fake news stories and 7.9% recalled seeing them and believing them. But roughly the same number of people remembered seeing and believing the news in the third category.
The conclusion of the researchers: Some 8% of the adult population is willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heros and villains in politics.
What to do about this?
Both Facebook and Google have recently adopted a policy to refuse to place ads on sites controlled by fake news publishers. But the purveyors and profit-makers from fake news are likely to be nimble and set up new websites when their discredited ones have been shut down.
Here is a wikipedia list of all the fake websites and their founders, etc. Notice they are deliberately close to legitimate news sites. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fake_news_websites Several are operated by the same person/organization.
The New York Times solicited ideas and came up with four proposals:
Facebook must acknowledge and change its financial incentives
Algorithms could help social media users spot fake news
3) Users must be more critical of online content
4) Social media companies need to hire human editors
There are several sites that try to investigate and debunk fake rumor and news including factcheck.org, snopes.com, and politifact.com but in entering some of the “fake news” stories I found, these didn’t always come up as stories discredited.
Another proposal is to create a crowdsourced, open list of false news sites regularly updated and refined by consensus (like Wikipedia) and persuade Google, Facebook, YouTube and other social media to agree to abide by this list and block such site advertising. Employ self-policing as with Wikipedia.
Also I found the following 32 page guide to fake news sites. There is a directory of specific sites and warning flags that can be deduced from the URL. For example, if the site ends in .com.co it’s a website in Colombia, not a traditional dot com.
Issues for Discussion
Who is the arbiter of “fake news”? It’s the age-old conundrum of the rights of free speech vs. censorship. The line between satire and “lying for cash” may be difficult to draw.
Should there be penalties for those who knowingly create “fake news”? Is it the equivalent of “shouting fire in a crowded theater”?
Should prominent social media sites such as Facebook and Google be legally required to root out fake news sites, or even to face fines for failure of due diligence?
What is the obligation of politicians to be accountable for exercising due diligence on stories that they distribute? Donald Trump has been accused of re-tweeting fake news without checking the validity of a story.
What methods should be adopted to educate citizens about how to test the truthfulness of stories they may see on social media and the Internet?
Do mainstream journalists need to change their methods of communicating and sourcing stories in order to offer a more legitimate and accessible alternative to fake news?
Finally, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams started a series today in which the dumb pointy-haired boss has re-tweeted a racist conspiracy theory. We’ll see where he takes that in the coming days and whether it could be an amusing addition to what we have pulled together. Too soon to tell. Here’s the first panel:
Discussion leader: Charles Salmans