Trump has made a lot of things buzzworthy, but perhaps none more than “fake news.”
Everyone has strong opinions about who is at fault for spreading lies in the press. It’s “the media’s” fault. It’s Trump’s fault. Before Trump, it was the National Enquirer’s fault. It’s Facebook’s fault. You name a source, and they’ve probably been blamed.
And while all of those entities have played their part in this epidemic, I’m going to tell you something that might be hard for you to hear: it’s your fault.
Or I’ll say it more nicely… it’s our fault.
The nature of the media has changed, and for better or worse they now chiefly operate to survive to attract readers, and we are those readers. If we want to see an end to fake news, we need to stop clicking on it, and stop spreading it. Our click is worth money. You’ve probably heard the phrase “vote with your dollar” applied to things like purchasing fair trade items. But you can, and do, vote with your clicks, too.
Here are some tips for spotting fake news and some realities we have to accept if we want to participate in and encourage a free, honest, informative press.
Why is this happening?
News outlets are businesses, and they have owners who care about profits, like any business. When there were widely read physical newspapers, these organizations only needed a few strong cover stories to sell a paper and make a profit. Now that people consume news online, people are buying way fewer papers. Now it’s about getting clicks and ad revenue, and that is done on a per-story basis.
Each story needs to be clickable, or it’s worth nothing to the news outlet. So each story needs to have a sexy headline and a provocative photo, which tempts outlets into being as bombastic as possible with every single story.
Furthermore, news outlets are under intense pressure to get stories out as quickly as possible. Getting traffic is about speed. The faster a story goes up, the more traffic it will get because it’s the first to hit social media and collect rapid shares. This tempts news outlets into publishing unverified stories, figuring they can later issue corrections or retractions if they’re wrong. And since no one is punished for this, the practice continues. But there is a a way to fight it.
You can punish them by not clicking on totally ridiculous headlines. You can punish them by not sharing unverified reports. Share substantiated stories from reliable sources and direct traffic their way.
How to spot fake news
Fake news is mostly easy to spot, when you know what to look for. Here are the most common types of fake news you should know about:
Outright lies: Totally fake stories that are picked up by mainstream media, like Pizzagate.
“Reports”: This tactic is used by many mainstream media outlets to post stories they cannot verify. Headlines like “Report: Evil clowns take over Washington,” mean that the newspaper can’t verify the clowns are taking over themselves, but are spreading a story that was reported elsewhere. They think that by writing “report” in front of their headline, it excuses them from responsibility for its veracity.
This is the equivalent of a kid in the lunchroom saying “I didn’t see it myself, but I heard that the quarterback is secretly dating all the cheerleaders. But I don’t know if it’s true.” By writing disclaimers, news organizations decide they can post stories based on what they’ve heard but not been able to substantiate themselves. Disclaimer or not, it still spreads the “news” just the same.
Denials: Outlets can spread a story they cannot verify by spreading a denial instead. For example, let’s say a reporter hears that Godzilla has risen from the sea. But that reporter can’t find any evidence that this is the case. They can call the US Coast Guard, and then post a story that says “US Coast Guard Denies Godzilla has Risen from the Sea.” While that denial is true, the outlet also managed to spread the Godzilla rumor that they could not substantiate by writing the story in an inverse way.
Misleading headlines: Exaggerations or half-truths in headlines are a constant, almost accepted occurrence. If it sounds too one-sided, it probably is. If it sounds totally absurd, it probably is. If you feel you’re about to open click-bait, you probably are.
How you can fight it: Stop paying the piper
Every time you click on a fake news story, you are paying its publisher. You are voting for that content. Every time you share fake news, even because you think it’s funny or absurd, you are selling that content and making its publisher money. People stopped buying cassette tapes, so they don’t make them any more. The only way to stop the production of fake news is to stop buying it.
Media should consider utilizing new technology to vet their contributors and sources. Blockchain tech can authenticate identities in ways that weren’t possible until now. Blockchain can also verify immutable location and timestamps, making it harder to forge reports. Keep a look out for news services that offer this kind of authentication and reward them with your clicks, and deny your attention to sources that don’t.
Facebook has given a lot of lip service to their desire to fight fake news, but I’m sure you agree that you still see tons of it on your feed. Facebook recently launched a web series about how they’re using fact-checkers and AI to catch fake news and misinformation. But so far, when they do catch it, they’re just tweaking that post’s stats so it doesn’t appear on news feeds as much, not removing the post.
Is that enough? And are they even obligated to referee the news if they’re not providing it? Do people have a right to spread falsehoods if there are no damages?
For the sake of this discussion, it doesn’t matter.
Don’t click on the crazy stories you see. If you know it’s fake but think it’s funny, you’re still paying with your click. Stop it.
In this climate, it’s hard to believe that we ever outsourced the definition of the truth to other organizations without any question, but it’s very clear those days are over.