As a reporter, I can tell you that the popularity of my job has dived even within my personal network.
Worse, the trust once associated with news reports from mainstream media has eroded and more and more of my friends are telling me that the media is too biased or one-sided, a view that I find has been increasingly echoed on social media platforms. Fake news, however, is not the answer.
First we need to differentiate fake from biased. Second, we need to clarify the role of mainstream media in spreading fake news. And finally, let’s see if social media platforms are taking useful steps to get rid of fake news.
Biased Vs. Fake
Truth be told, media outlets do tend to have a bias, especially when it comes to political reporting. Based on editorial endorsements in Canada’ 2015 election, for instance, the National Post is more conservative than the Toronto Star, which endorsed the Liberal Party.
However, a bias merely reflects a view of how society or the economy, for instance, should work. Writing with that view in mind does alter the way events or data are interpreted: the same budget deficit could be too much for one observer and acceptable for the other.
The key here, however, is that the budget number itself is the same in both analyses. The reason is that this figure is the fact, and in both approaches, that fact remains correct and unbiased, coming from the same source.
Altering the number itself to fit a narrative would become misinformation or fake news.
To be sure, misinformation has occurred within mainstream media, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake.
The pressure to deliver scoop after scoop, or to beat the competition, has led some reporters and anchors from mainstream media to provide distorted, if not totally fake, accounts of reality.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for half a year in 2015 after he “ misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003 “, as NBC News President Deborah Turness told her staff.
Sometimes, the misinformation came from a genuine mistake, which most of the time is corrected by the news outlet. This was the case of ABC reporter Brian Ross, who was suspended for a “serious error”.
In such cases, however, be it a mistake or a deliberate act of misinformation from the reporter, news outlets themselves are not supporting such actions and take corrective and/or punitive measures against the reporter responsible for it.
Editorial guidelines and controls should prevent such situations from occurring and the fact that they continue to happen shows there is definitely room for improvement.
Yet, it doesn’t suggest mainstream media is spreading fake news.
Social Media Platforms Taking Some Steps
You and me, the users of social media, are the ones generating content. Facebook or Twitter are, however, amplifying the voice of such users given the instantaneous and global reach they provide.
Social media platforms have seen a proliferation of news that distort the facts themselves to serve a narrative. Interference into elections is one of the most dangerous uses of fake news: if successful, it’s the future of an entire nation that can be turned around by tricking voters into believing false stories.
According to a study published earlier this year, social media platforms have played a key role in misinformation during the U.S. 2016 presidential election campaign, especially Facebook.
The research found that “1 in 4 Americans visited a fake news website from October 7-November 14, 2016.” It added that “almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news web-sites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets. We also find that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news and that fact-checks of fake news almost never reached its consumers.”
Initially, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube simply considered themselves as just that: platforms lending support to people to express themselves, whatever they had to say, hence respecting the principle of free speech.
But that view has changed and those platforms have become more proactive in tackling fake news.
Facebook has been “working to stop misinformation and false news.”
During the summer, Facebook, Youtube, and Spotify banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars, with Twitter following soon after.
This change amounted, in my view, to the recognition that social media platforms bear more responsibility in the spread of fake news than they initially accepted, and that will likely force further actions down the road to address this issue.
In October, Facebook came up with a “war room” to address the misuse of its platform, notably fake stories aimed at influencing elections.
Some critics believe such efforts aim at correcting the bad PR and improve the platform’s image.
But even if that was the end objective, it would have to be successful at reducing fake news in order to improve the company’s image. So it is still a step forward in my view.
Facebook removed hundreds of accounts suspected of spreading fake stories, showing the extent to which such platforms can amplify the reach of these stories.
Do you think such efforts can be successful in tackling fake news?
Should lawmakers and politicians handle the issue by adopting new laws?
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