On the Rise of Fake News

Major social media companies from Facebook, to Alphabet (Google, YouTube), through Twitter have come out saying they are going to take measures to prevent the spread of “Fake News”. This of course prompted some wags to marvel at at their bold move to ban major media outlets.

Besides the inevitable inaccurate news coverage and commentary on the biases of broadcasters like MSNBC or Fox News, “fake news” is, in fact, a thing. It’s an increasingly profitable business model – typically from websites hosted overseas – to create legitimate-looking press copy that is completely made up, in the interest of making money on views.

Briefly explained, the fake news site works by registering a domain that looks like a valid news agency, and writing stories as if they were a news agency, putting in completely made-up information. The page targets subjects that would drive significant traffic (such as scandals, politics, and especially political scandals), since they make money on ad revenue. It’s important to separate them from click-bait sites that use exaggeration or weasel words in titles to drive traffic to actual content (like Buzzfeed, Salon or Drudge).

However, despite the fact that its found its way into social discussion, fake news is by no means a new thing. It’s existed for ages on the internet – it’s just that it’s getting significantly more notice now.

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A good deal of that extra notice  – and success – of fake news, especially in the last few months, can be laid at the doorstep of conventional media (or traditional media, or mainstream media, whatever your preferred term for “real news” is). Confidence in the media as a whole has dropped to an all-time low, with around 70% of Americans not trusting the media. Naturally, if they don’t trust their regular sources of information, they are going to turn elsewhere for information.

When a major newspaper – traditionally newspaper of record – admit to throwing out journalistic standards in order to attack a particular candidate, it’s not surprising that confidence in the media is shaken. News stories that are relevant to a lot of people are being ignored in favor of partisan editorial interests. Just yesterday #gatlinburg was a trending topic on Twitter, mostly due to people complaining about how traditional media was not covering the event (while broadcasting re-runs of political issues). The lack of quick response from the media belied the notion that 24-hour news channels are actually working on the news 24-hours a day (leaving rehashed news to fill the air during the “down time”).

Traditionally, when fake news started to make the rounds, the way to deal with it was to check a reliable source. The trouble now is that traditionally reliable sources aren’t reliable anymore – either because of overt bias, or not getting to the story in a timely fashion due to staff cuts -, which makes countering fake news significantly harder.

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The bottom line is that fake news isn’t spreading thanks to a more gullible public (and especially not because people on the other side of the political spectrum are stupid), but because it’s exploiting the weakness in traditional media. Mainstream media has failed to keep up with the demand for timely, accurate information (either sacrificing timeliness for accuracy, or more frequently and concerning, accuracy for timeliness).

The other factor is tailored content. With the proliferation of information on the internet, people have the option of looking for information that confirms their own biases. This is explained much better and in much more detail elsewhere, but with people abandoning traditional media in favor of opinionated media, mainstream media has tried to recapture market share by becoming increasingly opinionated. The problem is that you can’t cater to people’s biases and be reputable source of unbiased coverage at the same time.

Traditional media’s inability to adapt to the faster pace of news in the age of the internet, coupled with a drive to capture biased markets, makes them increasingly hard to trust for a broad segment of the population. (And of course augmented by people’s desire to paint media as biased so they don’t have to believe facts that contradict their worldview.) The notion of the media as a pillar of factual truth is crumbling.

Of course we should be concerned about fake news leading to an uninformed public. However, the proliferation of fake news is more of a symptom of the failures of traditional media – and while actions need to be taken to curtail fake news, we should be a lot more concerned with actions meant to restore trust and confidence in the media. If the media remains more focused on assailing fake media than spending some time on introspection, we have a poor recipe for the future.

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