The term might have become a buzzword, but the problem is serious
WikiTribune’s mission — to quote the mainstream media who’ve covered us — is “to combat fake news with wiki-powered journalism,” (TechCrunch), “to fight fake news by pairing professional journalists with an army of volunteer community contributors” (The Guardian) and “to offer ‘factual and neutral’ articles that help combat the problem of ‘fake news’” (BBC).
Notice a trend there?
The term “fake news” has proliferated over the last few months, thanks in no small part to its being one of President Trump’s favourite phrases.
But what does “fake news” actually mean? What counts and doesn’t? Why is it a problem? And how does WikiTribune plan to fix it?
Allow us to explain.
The birth of a catchphrase
While the term itself has suddenly risen to prominence, the phenomenon of fake news has been with us for as long as we’ve had news. It just went by a variety of different names.
What is and isn’t “fake news” is not universally agreed-on. Anecdotally, it seems the term is more likely to be applied when a story conflicts with the speaker’s personal viewpoint, where a more generous interpretation might call it “spin,” “propaganda” or “puffery.” These techniques are well-established in journalism and PR, where the same data can be presented in different ways to support or attack a particular viewpoint.
However, for our purposes, the term “fake news” is restricted to stories that are intentionally false or deliberately misleading. A fabricated quote is fake news, a quote taken out of context might not be. As ever, it’s a spectrum, but we feel there are more accurate terms to describe partisan reporting, or accurate facts spun to fit an agenda.
For instance, a tabloid story which accurately reports immigration figures but presents them in a negative light is not fake news, it’s biased news. This is also a problem, particularly as people naturally gravitate towards media that reinforces their pre-existing views, but it’s not strictly “fake.”
Hoaxes, satire, misinformation and disinformation
Not all fake news is malicious. There are scores of websites producing made-up stories as humour — it only becomes a problem when people are not aware and take it seriously. For instance, a Republican Congressman posted a satirical article from The Onion to his Facebook page, believing it was real.
As ever, the best defence is to consider the source, but that’s much easier for people who are already internet- and media-savvy. People who didn’t grow up with the internet, or who believe websites have to comply with some kind of truth-telling code of conduct, are more likely to accept online news at face value. You can’t blame them: there are so many online news outlets that realistically, there’ll be perfectly reputable ones they haven’t heard of.
It doesn’t help that the real kind of fake news — the malicious type — can look absolutely legitimate to all but the best-informed readers. Fake news pages can have large social media followings (followers are easy to buy), good web design (it’s easy to set up a professional-looking site with something like Wordpress, which is also used by the good guys — including us), and possibly worst of all, placement on legitimate websites thanks to those end-of-post link farms. You know the type:
These sections are found on some of the most reputable sites, because making a living from online news has become incredibly difficult. Media companies are expected to pay for hosting, design, photography, journalism, advertising and staffing, while charging nothing for the product. This inevitably led to ads, which led to ad blockers, which led to bigger and more intrusive ads that are harder to block. Unfortunately, this has made the fake news problem worse, because it means ads for fake articles can appear on well-known, trusted sites, giving them an air of authenticity.
Some malicious organisations go even further: they actively pretend to be the legitimate sites. It’s common to see ‘Breaking news’ on Twitter posted by an account with a name like ‘The Guardlan’ (where the I is an L), which has pilfered the real Guardian’s logo, description and cover pic. Even the domain names and site design can look very similar, to the point that it fools the media too— Breitbart once sourced a story from a site pretending to be ABC News, for example.
Why is fake news a problem, and how do we fix it?
Untruthful articles can and do influence the way people think, act and vote. Fake news sites aren’t required (or likely) to disclose their falseness the way a satirical news site would, which makes it easier to mistake them for the truth. And while previously only professional news organisations had the means to reach people via papers and TV, now anyone can reach millions through social media, YouTube and the internet. Buzzfeed found that in the 2016 US election, fake news actually outperformed the truth on Facebook.
The gates are wide open, and there’s no one guarding them.
So what can we do? Here’s what we think needs to change to reverse the damaging trend of fake news:
- The business model of online media needs to be fixed so that it’s no longer reliant on clicks and ads. This model started the race to the bottom that’s made it profitable for fake news sites to exist, and even given them ad space on legitimate ones.
For WikiTribune, that means being funded entirely by readers. No ads, no paywalls, just people supporting honest news. Of course, this requires…
- Willingness to pay for accurate news. We used to stump up for papers and magazines, but the ‘everything is free’ ethos of the internet made us less willing to do so. However, fake and inaccurate news can cost you far more than a subscription: if you vote for a candidate who’ll destroy the industry you work in, for example.
- Clear signposting of false and inaccurate content, especially on social media sites. The blue ‘verified’ check mark has helped, as has Google’s fact check tag and Facebook’s fake news guide. When an old story starts to pick up traffic, the BBC adds a note pointing out the date. These kinds of initiatives help, but we also need to change the algorithms that surface false content and cut off the financial incentives that support its creation.
- Education and awareness of how to spot fake news and how to fact-check it. This is on all of us: if you see someone you love sharing a fake news post, have a quiet word, and perhaps make them aware of fact-checking services like Snopes.
- Collaboration. If you see something inaccurate on a reputable site, contact the editor or journalist. If you see fake news on Facebook, report it. On WikiTribune, you’ll be able to edit articles directly as you can on Wikipedia, and submit revisions for review.
Accuracy matters. Neutrality matters. The truth matters.
If we all play our part in the fight against fake news, we’ll secure a future everyone can believe in. We’re starting now. Are you?