Is there a flood of fake news online? Yes. And should something be done about it? Of course. But before we explore our options, let us get a few things clear:
Fake news did not elect Donald Trump — unless you categorize many of the President-elect’s own tweets as fake news. Media is as guilty as anyone for the election’s outcome because journalism failed in its mission: to inform the public.
Fake news has not taken over the social platforms. Most of what we do there is still enjoyable and sometimes valuable (or else only fools would continue using them).
Fake news can come from anywhere. I would argue that The New York Times’ story about Hillary Clinton’s email was fake or at least severely overblown by the rest of media, but The New York Times is not fake news.
Finally, trying to kill fake news, mistakes, lies, and idiocy online — a
Right to be Forgotten for falsity — would be as futile as trying to
correct every drunken conversation in every Kneipe across the land.
Ignorance and stupidity are cousin cockroaches that will not die.
News organizations can no longer expect that the public will come to them
If the internet age has taught us nothing thus far, it has taught us that the only sensible treatment (though not cure) for bad information is more good information, which should take many forms.
First, news organizations should learn lessons from the fake-news factories and use their social tools — memes (photos with text on Facebook, Instagram, et al), videos, and tweets — to spread more real news: reporting, fact-checking, context, explanation. I am not suggesting that journalists abandon the article, that Die Zeit turn into a collection of cat photos illustrating little-known facts or that the Tagesschau become a 30-second YouTube viral video.
But we can no longer expect that the public will always come to us — to our publications, our shows, our sites — to consume news in the form we dictate. No, we must go to the public we are sworn to inform and do so in the context of their conversations there. We should arm citizens with truth bullets they can fire at will to inform their conversations and correct their friends.
Mark Zuckerberg was being glib and unhelpful when he contended that fake news on Facebook did not elect Trump because 99 percent of
what is on Facebook is true (where is the data to prove that?). But he
quickly turned around and listed what his platform will do, much of which paralleled 15 suggestions New York entrepreneur John Borthwick and I made to all the platforms.
The gist of them, again, is for Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram,
YouTube, et al to collaborate with both media and users to provide more
good information to the public.
Collaborate with Silicon Valley
Imagine this: across your social feed comes a photo of Angela Merkel dancing in a clown costume at a bacchanalian party, purporting to be news. You’re amused. You think of sharing this. But before you do, you note that the source of this photo is a supposed news brand you’ve never heard of that was established only a day before. You also see that a well-established news organization has debunked the photo. You see that the person who shared it with you tends to share other debunked "news." Will you still share it? Or if you do will you at least add your conclusion that it’s fake, just so you don’t come off the fool?
Media should listen to the conversations online, fact-check those that are getting out of hand, and share that information with the social platforms, which should in turn share that with users so they can make better judgments. The platforms should also work to track back the source of photos and other memes and stories so users can know what began with a reputable news source and what sprang from the fetid imagination of a fringe political cult. The platforms also need to do a much better job displaying the brands of especially reputable news sources so users can have more help discerning credibility.