We’re awash in finger-pointing and breast-beating about fake news.
Facebook (META), abashed by the slack standards that allowed bogus online content mills such a big role in the election campaign, has promised steps ranging from stronger efforts to detect illegitimate sites to “disrupting fake news economics.” News organizations from across the spectrum cast themselves as “the antidote to the fake-news epidemic.” And, of course, President Donald Trump has taken to hanging the label on any story he doesn’t like.
Forgive me, but there’s something unconvincing about much of the handwringing. Way too much importance is being attached to overtly fake sites, and not nearly enough to what may prove to be much bigger contributors to misinforming Americans.
I’d suggest three major sources of misinformation: Fake news from fake sites; fake news from real sites; and real news from real sites that presents a misleading or one-sided perspective, because social media and other personalized channels filter out information that might create a fuller picture.
So far, most of the debate has focused on the first category, fake news from fake sites. But it’s also the easiest to deal with. Meanwhile, it’s the latter two categories—fake news from real sites, and real but one-sided news—that may prove to be much more important, and much more intractable.
Make no mistake, fake news from fake sites is a real problem, with real-world consequences. You don’t even need to engage in the argument over whether sites with headlines like “Federal Agents Just Confirmed Hillary Killed Vince Foster After Their Affair” helped sway the presidential election. Just read the saga of the gunman who entered a D.C. pizzeria last December, intending to free the sexually abused children being held there by a pedophilia ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Even Alex Jones, the conspiracy-minded host of “InfoWars,” apologized for his role in spreading the lie—three months later.
Yet from a technological viewpoint, such stories may be the easiest to deal with. It’s a pretty straightforward task to do things like adjust an algorithm to evaluate a source’s authenticity, and to disrupt the economics of such sites by detecting and blocking their content.
It’s to Facebook’s shame that it didn’t come to that conclusion much earlier than it did, and take appropriate steps when it could have made more of a difference. But it is at least now launching a new educational campaign on how to spot fake news. Google, meanwhile, last week announced a new feature called Fact Check for news and search.
Fake news from real sites is a much bigger problem—not just for news consumers, but for news producers. The textbook example of this kind of fake news, the one that should be a case study in every journalism school in the country, is the Obama “birther issue.”
The story was, of course, totally fake from the outset—a fever dream aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of America’s first African-American president. But its embrace by Donald Trump, and constant repetition by Fox News—which, whatever you think of its politics, is an actual news organization that employs actual journalists—created a conundrum for every other news organization.
The drumbeat was so loud and constant that even news organizations that knew better found themselves drawn into covering the “controversy.” And the “controversy” coverage in turn added fuel to the baseless suspicion.
And then there’s the most difficult problem of all: real news from real sites that fails to deliver a full picture. That’s because so many sources are competing to present you with news that conforms to what they already know you’re likely to believe, thus reinforcing those beliefs—the filter bubble.
Americans may have been just as polarized in the prehistoric days before the web, social media and 500 cable channels, but with so many fewer sources of information, they were more likely to be arguing their opinions based on the same set of facts. The explosion of information has paradoxically made it easier than ever to miss—or willfully ignore—facts that might challenge preconceived notions.
Combatting this kind of misinformation-by-exclusion isn’t simple, but it is possible.
Quartz recently published a how-to guide for introducing a wider range of views into your news habits without inducing the “cerebral whiplash” that can occur when a liberal experiences Breitbart. Sites like AllSides aim to present a broad but curated selection from across the spectrum, while the News Literacy Project aims to promote critical thinking among middle- and high-school students.
Still, bursting the filter bubble will require more than well-intentioned efforts or even tweaked algorithms. It has to start with a willingness on the part of news consumers to both seek out and tolerate information and views that diverge from their own. The question is whether enough of us are willing to make the effort.