Written with Michael Berk
Much coverage has been dedicated to fake news as of late: how fake news helped Trump win the presidency; about trolls who prank the media for fun; or Russia’s continued focus on distorting the information space. The problem of unreliable information is not unique to any one society. In Indonesia, a series of fake stories quickly spread through social media platforms and led to a rise in anti-Chinese sentiments and sectarian tensions. At the same time, governments in both Germany and Czech Republic, where concerns over potential Russian influence on voters’ decisions in the respective 2017 elections are increasing, plan to set up expert-based centres to combat the spreading of fake news and disinformation online.
Before a problem can be addressed, however, it must be clearly identified. For us, dealing with propaganda and information warfare, where the construction of narratives is equally as important as the capability of countering strategic misinformation, the problem of ‘fake news’ appears to be two-fold (at its highest level of analysis). First, is the complex web of modern information networks where the generation, distribution and uptake of information must be assessed alongside the corporate nature of mainstream traditional media with its 24/7 news cycle, profit generation and fierce competition in a relatively ‘narrow agenda’ environment. In other words, ‘fake news’ becomes a problem only when the volume and efficient distribution supplant and substitute traditional sources. Second, and related, is the gradual and progressively deteriorating erosion of trust in the mainstream media channels. This trend severely undermines Western society’s ability to both be socialized around a core set of norms and cognitive constructs depicting a ‘Western reality’ and, at the same time, withstand strategic influence operations, whether applied from within (recent U.S. elections) or from abroad. While a short blog post cannot address these issues completely, we will try to outline the main contours and offer a possible solution below.
In addressing the first problem, we begin with a glimpse of a modern information creation and distribution network. The spread of fake news goes beyond a single website or source, which makes it a complex problem. As Jonathan Albright’s research has shown, there is a network of fake news sites that comprise an “ecosystem of real-time propaganda”. This network targets mainstream media, social networks and Wikipedia – and Albright’s visualised network analysis is fairly alarming in that this propaganda ecosystem appears to be choking out its targets.
This network does not appear to be controlled by a single entity. Yes, bots are used to help spread content – but so too do dedicated internet agitators, the followings they incite to support a cause, and paid trolls and meme makers (it’s probably worth noting that all of the examples in this last sentence are American Trump supporters, not Russian). The ease and speed with which content can be generated, spread and multiplied through a network of bots and affiliates allow a multitude of alternative “information sources” to emerge overpowering and submerging traditional, and perhaps more reliable, channels. And if the network analysis above wasn’t obvious enough, the people behind this propaganda ecosystem are digitally savvy, they have demonstrated a clear understanding of how to game Facebook and Google algorithms – the engines behind much of the content users view online.
While this disinformation network is troubling, it now must be assessed against the relatively small number of traditional media channels (with their digital assets included), which are driven by the perpetual 24/7 news cycle encouraging media outlets to break stories at lightening speeds to be first, thus driving advertising and subscription incomes higher. As other pundits noted over time, such an approach increases the likelihood that mis/disinformation will be published as news. The issue is aggravated by the fact that the six largest media conglomerates, which as of 2012 controlled most mainstream information creation and distribution, operate within a fairly hierarchical corporate structure and cover a limited range of topics that frame the governing socio-political and economic order. In the latter, they’re further limited by constructs of what is politically correct, inoffensive, and/or socially acceptable, and through their sheer size have shaped political discourse. Unfortunately, since the sense of reality for many Americans (and others under their influence) may not always coincide with the pervasive imagery on TV screens or Internet-based media, this further undermines the credibility of the mainstream media.
Americans have been expressing a growing decline in trust of mass media, long before the stories of fake news broke. Gallup began asking the question in 1972, and on a yearly basis since 1997. Since this poll’s inception, Americans’ trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72%, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. After holding in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, Americans’ trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily to the current 32%, falling 8 points in the last year alone. Indeed, subscription and viewing rates continue to falter too. And as Gilad Lotan outlines in his analysis, media bias and misinformation over time have done more to endanger mass media than fake news has.
This deteriorating trust in the mainstream media (regardless of country since similar trends can be observed elsewhere in the West), is extremely dangerous to the stable development of any society. Traditionally, media played an important role in building consensus around the main normative values (“this is who we are”), shaping public opinion and providing an epistemological foundation to an average individual’s worldview. An integral part of a socialization process, media thus performs a crucial role in establishing a commonly-shared ideological ‘narrative’ which ensures the collective in question is moving along a similar path of development. The stronger such a narrative is, the more cohesive a society becomes, and vice versa. It follows that in an environment where both the medium (traditional media in its various forms) and message (content they deliver) are losing in prestige, trust, and rates of penetration and retention the society becomes susceptible to alternative ‘narratives’ which simply fill the resulting information gap.
It is important to remember that ‘fake news’ has always been part of human communications as rumours, misinterpretations or outright lies. As such, they do not present a problem until the existential worldview of individuals forming a group no longer remains cohesive and firmly established in an observed reality of their existence.
How do you solve a problem like Fake News?
For a problem so apparently pressing, few solutions to address the fear have been put forward. So, what is to be done?
Attempting to fight fake news by disproving it is akin to bailing out a sinking ship with a coffee mug. Fact-checking centres comprised of experts responsible for verifying photos or claims prior to publication is impractical. Likewise, reintroducing content curation, used in the U.S. until the 1980s, would likely be perceived as ‘external censorship’ – and, it is unlikely that online media outlets operating beyond American borders will comply. Disproving claims after they are published is just as impractical. It takes far less time to create and spread lies than it does to prove them wrong. And moreover, fighting lies with facts actually does little to change the perspectives of those who want to believe fake news. Furthermore, those people exposed to disinformation are seldom those who view the corrective information when it comes out.
Re-establishing credibility for traditional media is key – but in the current environment it is a battle of “he said, she said”, with each brand of media claiming to have the truth. In the U.S., perspectives are so polarised that “there is little overlap between media” republicans and democrats “turn to and trust”. Chatter on Twitter showed that the Clinton and Trump supporters were not talking to each other during the election – each contained within its own echo chamber. Add to this a growing animosity held about each camp towards the other and the general illusion of moral superiority humans tend to have about their own views – and the hope for leaving media outlets to re-establish their own credibility is pretty bleak.
Google and Facebook are attempting to build solutions, after enduring much public pressure, but such internal initiatives will be as much believed as, say, Fox News or the Washington Post claiming to be the only holder of the truth. Much of the problem comes down to determining what news is fake and what isn’t – which some might argue is subjective, but also very resource intensive.
I Have Credibility
An alternative might be to create a sort of Better Business Bureau for media. Such an independent body could be led by a consortium of international academic institutions. This Better Media Bureau would be responsible for ongoing assessment of media outlets – and individual journalists – assigning an overall credibility rating based on review of their content.
Ideally, the Better Media Bureau would be a network of academics from around the world, such as G20 countries including the U.S., U.K, India, China, Brazil, South Africa, Russia. The network members would be sent a set of random articles from news outlets with an established regularity (subject to resources) for independent evaluation including assessing the validity of facts mentioned, authenticity of photos, inclusion of sources, among other details. Only factual, i.e. verifiable, points, as opposed to analytical or opinion pieces, will be assessed. (Of course, it is also anticipated that some facts could be interpreted differently by media outlets from say the U.S. or China.) All parameters are graded, with explanations provided if necessary, and a total score is given. The materials and scores come back to a central location for aggregation, ranking and public disclosure.
In addition to this, false stories that are caught by others amidst public outcries of ‘fake news’, would also be filed in for scrutiny. Such false stories would trigger an analysis of not just that particular story by the ‘offending outlet’, but also other past stories by that media organisation on the same subject to assess whether this might have been a mistake (as will happen), or a more systematic effort at spreading misinformation. This analysis will ultimately also affect that media outlet’s overall credibility score. Consideration will also be given as to how a media outlet deals with the discovery of errors found in their content.
In a relatively short period, a list of media sources – including mainstream outlets and independent blogs – would emerge for each major country, to be expanded upon either through the continuous work of participating labs or by submission. Other countries and their outlets get added over time. If disagreements on scores arise between participating Labs, a joint consultation would take place mediated by the central Better Media Bureau.
Such findings could be used to feed a web browser extension that could help end-users navigate news articles in real time – a low Better Media Bureau scoring for that outlet would help readers form their opinion on the content published. The key here is that the Bureau must remain independent.
This approach places the onus on information-producers, forcing them to uphold to more ethical and factual coverage. The Better Media Bureau would be transparent, based on clear criteria, peer-reviewed and not discriminatory. The process would be verifiable and repeatable which ensures consistency and coherence. Having a Better Media Bureau scoring wouldn’t be mandatory, but the reputation associated with a “5 TRUTH Star” should drive most to aspire to obtain it. It certainly demonstrates that ‘something’ is done, and on a global scale.
While proposed for organizations initially, a similar process could be envisioned for individual journalists too. As content creators, they often contribute a great deal to the potential disinformation climate.
Of course, this is no small undertaking. Building a Better Media Bureau would require considerable resources, time to set up, and staff that have absolutely no political affiliation. However, if the problem with fake news is as threatening as the media currently makes it out to be – then it’s time to move on a more systematic – and realistic – undertaking to deal with the issue.