Fixing fake news: Treat the problem not just the symptom

Journalism must find deeper ways to engage with its communities to rebuild trust

Image by Jon Nicholls (CC BY 2.0)

The dangers of fake news spread via social networks are something that we at Meedan have been grappling with for the past five years. Misinformation and rumour spread virally online has real, offline consequences, especially for marginalized communities. Misinformation can fundamentally undermine the credibility of platforms used by citizens around the world to hold public figures to account, document rights abuses and to bear witness to hate crimes.

That some US media are now taking these dangers seriously is welcome — albeit far too late to reverse the damage done over the past year. That fake news in the social media age has a disturbing tendency to travel far and wide, however, is symptomatic of a larger problem.

We would like to ask a difficult question: why are people in vast and unprecedented numbers turning to fake news? Facebook’s News Feed algorithm may amplify engagement with misinformation but it cannot bear sole responsibility for the broken information ecosystem in which fake news thrives. We can do more to address the symptom of fake news online, but we cannot fail to address the underlying sickness: for broad sections of society trust in journalistic institutions has almost completely disintegrated. Newsrooms need urgent change if they are to remain relevant to the diverse public they hope to serve.

As we work on tools to promote accurate, truth-based reporting as a cornerstone of democratic society, we at Meedan must also grapple with this fundamental challenge. Our product Check is designed to help journalists address the practical challenge of investigating, questioning and annotating links and claims in a way that also starts to address the underlying problems of the media ecosystem.

At its core, Check is a tool to help people — journalists, readers, citizen journalists, activists, human rights researchers, academics — work together on the process of curating, verifying, fact-checking and annotating digital media, whether eyewitness video posted to Twitter or a link being shared virally on Facebook. It’s our theory of change that by creating space for a deeper, more journalistic engagement between media institutions and their communities of readers, that we can start to restore the industry’s essential role as the foundation of an equitable democracy.

Fear only becomes the story in the absence of an accurate analysis of power — @culturejedi

The issue of trust in media institutions doesn’t necessarily stem from a lack of faith in the credibility of reporting, but also from a lack of equitable opportunities for public participation in those institutions. Elite newsrooms that are unwilling to open their doors to new forms of engagement will only accelerate their spiral into irrelevance. They are abandoning their function in democratic society.

One group whose work in this area is particularly is commendable is Hearken, who make a compelling case for media institutions listening to their communities more directly and answering their questions. Coral Project interview research shows this is something readers are frustrated about.

At a time of rising racism and xenophobia, and in a moment when neo-Nazis are grabbing the mic, a call to engage with and listen to communities absent the acknowledgment of systemic racism in media would be inadequate and inappropriate. In seeking to engage with their communities, media institutions must actively, openly, and determinedly reach out to those who feel marginalized in society, and must take great pains to critically cover neo-Nazi movements without amplifying their message.

Hearken’s definition of engagement is one most modern media institutions would do well to consider:

If there’s no pathway for input from your audience to shape the content decisions your newsroom is making, then it’s not audience engagement. […] Engagement happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public.

If your “engagement” strategy is only or mainly focused on building your following on Facebook — a platform where, as President Obama recently noted, well packaged fake news is barely distinguishable from real news — then we shouldn’t be surprised that those in the business of misleading are able to capture some of that audience, or even at times a majority of that audience, as Buzzfeed’s stunning analysis recently showed.

Fact-checking and verification can be another vector for deeper, trust-building engagement that defies a headwind of political power, as demonstrated by the amazing community-led investigative work of groups like Bellingcat. This participatory approach has other benefits relevant to the fake news challenge too: it encourages and facilitates media criticism; it increases transparency and accountability; it builds more diverse stories.

Our journey with Check started in the earliest days of post-Arab Spring Egypt, a country where nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule had left trust in traditional media institutions completely destroyed. We learned this the hard way — a significant early challenge for the project was motivating citizen journalists to work with a mainstream publisher in whom they had little faith.

Among the many, many things that we’ve learned since then is that rebuilding trust in media is a difficult and delicate process that cannot be quickly solved by any app or tool: when we’ve had them, our successes — led and driven by our partners — have come through diligent community building over sustained periods, where Check has provided a workbench for journalistic collaboration between newsrooms with deep community roots.

The 2016 elections represented the first time Check has been deployed in the US, as the workbench for the Electionland project, which saw over 700 student journalists working with journalists and editors from ProPublica, First Draft, WNYC and Univision. Check was a “behind the scenes” workbench for the collaboration. Among the many amazing experiences of election day were the volume of reports and tips being sent to @Electionland and student reporters, and the willingness of citizens to engage in the verification process by answering questions and sharing photos and videos with student reporters. If media institutions are to reclaim the space seized by fake news over the past nine months, we should follow Electionland’s lead and start by opening our doors to productive collaboration across newsrooms and meaningful partnership with our communities.


To find out more about Check, sign up here or send us an email at check@meedan.com