In what seems like a meta-twist in a futuristic film made in the late 1990s, ‘fake news’ has been big news lately.
The range of scenarios in which fake news has been invoked is wide – for example, Facebook have announced that they will start using urban legend explainer Snopes to verify the accuracy of news articles on users’ newsfeeds. Closer to home, Angela Merkel and French election campaigners have recently vowed to regulate fake news to avoid further political disasters, cracking down on things like bots (automated social media accounts) posting links that can distort the perception of existing grassroots support.
On the one hand, reliable news sources and digital giants partnering up to rid the internet of strategically placed clickbait has been a response to recent criticism that held social networks like Facebook to account – if people are getting their news from you, you have a responsibility to provide some kind of rating system that accelerates rather than distorts the democratisation of freely available information.
This is a worthwhile initiative if we treat fake news strictly as a collection of automated websites that have the sole purpose of making money for whoever is behind them. However, when previously credible news outlets are accused of printing lies or exaggerated statements to satisfy an increasingly partisan readership, things get more complicated.
In 2016, we talked about increasing economic and social fragmentation and polarisation and the death of deference. Add an increasing demand for simplicity to that, and it is not hard to see why trying to navigate today’s digital media waters often results in factions accusing each other of destroying the country and everything it stands for.
This dramatic increase in partisanship is probably a good time to ask ourselves whether the way news is consumed and distributed online plays an underlying role in propagating it.
The current economic model for non-paywall digital content is advertisement-based, and will remain so for the foreseeable future (although as ever, this has been and will continue to be a controversial topic), and perhaps now is the time to ask how sustainable this model is. While it has worked wonders for bringing previously obscure information to the devices of millions of readers, if clickbait is being taken seriously by the political establishment, one wonders whether we have reached a critical point. As others have suggested, the click-and-share model will have to be refined in a way that is financially sustainable while at the same times serving its readers (who, if we are to interpret recent signals, may want more simplicity) without compromising on empirical data (recent examples include radically different readings of crime rates in the US).
All this is further complicated by the somewhat looming prospect of automation – robo-journalism is already a reality, and the Associated Press has announced that it has been automatically generating thousands of stories about US corporate earnings each quarter (and has also let slip that they have had far fewer errors compared to the previously manually written reports).
It may come as no surprise then, that the most trusted medium in 20 out of 33 European countries is radio, according to a 2015 European Broadcasting Union study.
While most people still get their news from television, the locality of radio content probably makes it the least ‘automatable’ media channel. Not only does radio reach 9 out of 10 adults in the UK, it also enjoys levels of trust above those of television and online channels.
Fake news as a concept in itself is not entirely new (remember the 1995 alien autopsy, or Clifford Irving’s ‘exclusive’ Hitler diaries?), but the powerful digital infrastructure that makes it accessible to the majority of the planet’s population is definitely novel in the grand scheme of things. This infrastructure has the potential to deliver a unique package of hoaxes, news that may be inconvenient if you are beholden to a particular ideology, and hard facts to our smartphones every morning.
If today, more than ever, an alternative fact can quite literally get halfway around the world before the truth has even got its shoes on, we need to have some serious nationwide and global conversations about treading the line between fairness and free speech.