Was Napoleon short? Did a World War Two bomber land on the moon? Whether deliberate propaganda or innocent fun, ‘fake news’ has been around for some time.
However, the explosion of digital content via a widening array of news sources has made it much more difficult to spot. In a world where everyone is constantly online, news can develop a life of its own before there is time to contest it and the speed at which it disseminates means that fake stories can even live on after being comprehensively disproven.
As a result, the media industry is going through a crisis of trust, with many now dubbing authentic journalism as false as a way to discredit news that is unfavourable to them. Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better, as protagonists begin faking pictures and videos too. To combat this, initiatives such as Wikitribune have been launched to bring legitimacy back to the news cycle. But when did everyone become less than honest?
The rise of the citizen journalist
While major news agencies have generally embraced the idea of reader participation, free and easy creation of content has damaged the wider industry. As consumers of news increasingly rely on alternative sources, readership of traditional outlets is drained. This means that they are often required to prioritise breaking news quickly and grasp readers’ attention through ‘clickbait’ and sensationalist stories rather than taking the time to fact-check.
In particular, the rise of social media platforms has led to any member of the public becoming a ‘journalist’ so to speak. And they can say what they want, without obligation to fact-check. This lack of source visibility creates doubts over the reliability of a story. Beyond this, a social media user’s ‘Code Halo’ (the data that accumulates around browsers through their clicks, likes and online habits) can allow these platforms to present a tailored curation of news, meaning that each user is subject to the ‘echo chamber’ effect and only sees stories aligned to their views.
Is Wikitribune the answer?
The Wikipedia model has proved a tremendous success since its launch in 2001, showing how effective the public can be to share and moderate facts. However, the success of its brother does not mean Wikitribune will be the remedy for the broken news cycle. Crowdfunded sites have struggled most where there is controversy and the new venture is likely to focus on stories that divide opinion. Furthermore, given that news often lives on after its falsehood has been proven, it will be difficult for Wikitribune to halt the legacy left by fake stories.
Despite the intentional differences with traditional media, Wikitribune’s limited pool of journalists may prevent it from gaining popularity over mainstream outlets. The longer news curation process that this causes, combined with the speed that news value deteriorates, means that it will be difficult for Wikitribune to publish stories in a timely manner. Lastly, there is no guarantee that the evaluated stories will be visible; for example, consumers using social media as their main source of news may never find out if a story has been discredited.
Industry leaders must take responsibility
So who else is fighting to fix the news for consumers? Although new initiatives seek to bring reliability back, it will take more of a co-ordinated effort across the news ecosystem to conquer the issue completely. With more information sources than ever, the solution will require buy-in from major technology companies that are acting like news organisations and distributing content to audiences, something particularly important given their influence and accessibility. Recently, Google and Facebook have openly taken action against fake news, by providing new reporting tools and tips for users.
However, mainstream media organisations are also entering the fray, with major outlets such as the BBC, Le Monde and The Washington Post launching their own fake news trackers. In particular, the BBC has committed to addressing these issues by working with social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram via their Reality Check initiative. While this is an encouraging move, it is important that standards are created and that publications do not contradict each other in classifying what news they deem to be ‘fake’.
Fixing the news cycle
For media organisations, traditional or disruptive, navigating the rapid industry changes that have given rise to fake news is an ominous prospect. To maintain a reputation as purveyors of quality content, many are working with digital experts to combat the associated challenges. For example, news agencies are prioritising reputational intelligence and working with analytics to mitigate any doubts over their integrity. From monitoring the sentiment of social media discussion to identifying misuse of their content, embracing digital tools allows them to respond accordingly to criticism on the appropriate channel, or issue take down notices.
Beyond this, the industry is teaching consumers to counter new threats, as a way of retaining their trust. For example, companies such as Facebook are attempting to improve the digital literacy of those who consume their content. Helping readers be more aware of the provenance of information and giving them the skills to critically evaluate sources can help fix the news from the consumer perspective.
How far the fake news phenomenon will go is unclear, but current trends would indicate that it will soon require concerted effort to sort fiction from truth. Although initiatives such as Wikitribune are worthwhile, they will not be enough to stem the tide of unverified content distributed from a growing range of sources. It will take collaboration between the bastions of traditional media and the superpowers of new media to ensure that audiences are able to trust the information presented to them and are equipped with the knowledge to evaluate online content and dismiss it if necessary. Only then will the integrity of the news ecosystem be restored.