Don’t take our word for it on fake news

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14 December 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitIn yet another example of how this year’s US presidential election was like no other we are being treated to a series of post mortems from bemused Democrats and Republicans, poll watchers, mainstream media and social networks. How did so many get it so long for so wrong?

Elected on the vague pledge to ‘make America great again’, Donald J. Trump’s rise to power is a multifaceted drama with subplots including Russian interference; commercial conflicts of interest; media failure to push back against post-fact politics; and consternation over the impact of fake news on floating voters.

It’s the last point that affects the tech world the most and marks a turning point in the debate over the role of social networks as either news distributors or publishers. Sticking to his ‘platform over publisher’ line, Facebook president Mark Zuckerberg said the idea that fake news had any effect on the electorate was ‘crazy‘ but behind the scenes the mood at the social network was more critical than defensive. Questions were being asked.

Zuckerberg’s position assumes users approach their news feeds with scepticism and are able to distinguish quality from click bait, reputable sources from conspiracy theorists. A report from Business Insider that fake news outperformed real news during the campaign would indicate this is not the case.

Is Facebook that important a news source? Apparently it is. According to the Pew Research Centre, 62% of online adults in the US use social media to get their news. Given the way news is presented on social media you are fed a steady stream of ‘news’ selected by an algorithm looking to match your user profile with content you might like and click on – but may be completely false.

Zuckerberg argues that content is none of its business. Unfortunately content is his business. Facebook not only can’t live without content, it is the largest distributor of news in the world and part of its success is the level of personalisation it offers. Facebook doesn’t present you with a smorgasbord of material, it offers a curated experience and once you get into that level of detail there is a responsibility to present material which is interesting but also accurate. Facebook might have a handle on the former but on the latter it is failing badly – a situation compounded when it fired human news team go earlier this year after allegations of ‘liberal bias’ in story selection. In the absence of common sense we now a situation arrived where something from is given equal space to the New York Times, Washington Post etc. To mangle a phrase: if it walks like news and talks like news, it must be news.

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The biggest indictment of Facebook’s news conundrum is in a story carried in the Guardian about a group of teenagers in the tiny Macedonian town of Veles who were making upwards of $40,000 a month writing fake stories about Donald Trump and posting them to Facebook. Say what you will about the man, he’s good for traffic, and traffic is what Facebook and its advertisers thrive on.

But really, for all the gaming of the system, did fake news actually sway floating voters or did it merely confirm existing biases?

Another social network struggling with the same issue is Twitter, where instead of being targeted from without you can create your own echo chamber and never have to be exposed to the other side of a debate. This has been Trump’s platform of choice both with the electorate and the media, where one tweet at a time he managed to hog airtime away from Hillary Clinton’s more traditional campaign. When you present a persona of a straight-talking ‘blue collar billionaire’ putting the blame for the decline of the middle class on immigrants, foreign powers and terrorism, it makes sense to deal in pronouncements over debate and to avoid any kind of fact checking – any that does manage to get through invariably gets glossed over by another successive scandalous reveals.

Did Trump debase Twitter by usnig it to construct his narrative and embolden readers of outlets like alt-right masthead Breitbart News? No, he exploited it to its fullest. Should Twitter have been more hip to the threat of fake news? No. It really is a platform, unfiltered, unreliable and subject to mob rule – the perfect vehicle for a populist candidate running a fact-free campaign.

So if Facebook is culpable and Twitter absolved what is the lesson for mainstream media with its pesky commercial considerations, fact checking and lofty aims of informing without prejudice? There have been a few developments that have me hopeful. First is the spread of well-written analysis from broadsheet papers of record to more unlikely outlets. Last weekend’s must-read opinion piece was in Teen Vogue, of all places. If erudite political think pieces can find their way into corners of the media that would ordinarily have nothing to do with them, I think there is hope for titles to regain reader trust and deprive clickbait merchants of cheap hits.

For its part, Facebook has given some ground by introducing an option for users to flag fake news stories on top of its automation effort. According to a report in Engadget, the social network has added the ability to report stories and have them taken off the site, making them less profitable. There are even browser plug-ins like BS Detector that can keep your browsing experience real through the power of automation.

The future of the mainstream media is diversity and quality enabled by better tech. Hopefully, the days of ‘bait and click’ are numbered.

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