Fake News Made in China

Last Friday, a feeble rumor stating that China was planning to shut down local cryptocurrency exchanges started to gain traction.

The fact that it had originated from the translation of a Chinese article mentioning an out of context comment from unconfirmed sources didn’t matter. A couple of hours after it started appearing on Twitter, Bitcoin was down more than 14%.

However, this isn’t even the largest cause for concern. Although I believe people have a responsibility to be critical when consuming information, one cannot blame them for wanting to be on the safe side when their money is at stake.

What is most concerning is that supposedly trustworthy mainstream media such as Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal published the story as if it was confirmed news, despite not having any credible source nor confirmation from Chinese exchanges at the time. These were still claiming that they had not received any order to stop operations.

I am not denying the possibility of this happening. China has a reputation for its handling of cryptocurrency and there has been an official announcement from the country banning ICOs (which is temporary). In the last hours, some notable community figures have even appeared to attest to the accuracy of the claims, although none have revealed sources.

But let’s take a moment here to analyse how this rumor got to the headlines of mainstream media before there was any true evidence of the news.

It is quite clear that the immediacy and anxiousness that the internet has brought into other aspects of our life, has also affected the way news is developed.

In very simple terms one could say that in the past, the news development process went like this:

Journalism has always been about novelty and scoops, but once you add the internet-immediacy to that mix you get a recipe for disaster.

The steps of the news development process have been turned upside down. Rumors are now published as news before any proper investigation or validation, which may take place later once the news has already been published. Finally the rumor may become an actual event or be proven false, but this is no longer the most important, because the news has already been published.

The rumor is the news, not the event.

As consumers, we were okay with this quality control process from tabloids and news blogs a couple of years ago, but this new paradigm of news creation has slowly crept into the newsrooms of the most reputable media outlets out there.

How is this possible and when did this happen?

We could point out several reasons, including the ripple effects of the attention economy and a surge of content created by amateurs or algorithms.

As a reader, there is little we can do to fight these two. We can try to resist the attention economy and be more conscious of what we choose to consume, but we inevitably fall for our basic instincts at times. Experienced content creators know this and are trained to exploit it.

But, there is one aspect as readers that we can be in control of, and that is making publications and journalists accountable for their actions. The lack of accountability and the blank check we gave these outlets perpetuates a system that is universally damaging.

John Pilger said “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.” So when they don’t make themselves responsible for this, we need to be holding journalists accountable for it.

The spreading of Fake News and the high levels of inaccuracies are another consequence of the lack of accountability.

However, the problem with holding media accountable is not only one of action but of resources. There are a lot of committed individuals in the space trying to help fight this with NGOs, organizations, or even ambitious and well-intentioned projects like WikiTribune.

But a lot of them tend to leave average readers out of the equation, or request too much from them.

The average Joe reading their free news online finds himself lacking either simple tools or the proper incentives to collaborate in this accountability process.

And if the average reader is not integrated as a core element in this process, nothing will change.

We need to provide both the tools and the right incentives for readers to become part of the process of improving media.

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