False reports deceived millions of social media users in 2016. Don’t be shocked—be vigilant
BY NOW, it’s clear that enterprising profiteers, right-wing extremists, and Russian propagandists used Facebook to circulate manipulative and untrue reports throughout 2016, misinforming millions of voters and, some say, tilting the election in Trump’s favor. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially scoffed at his platform’s problem, the company—following Google’s lead— responded to public outrage by formally announcing it would work to suppress fake news.
Inherent in our anger about this deception is the idea that anyone’s opinion could be “corrected” if only he or she were spoon-fed the “right” stories. Yet the news has never been a collection of pure, prefab truths that impartial reporters happen to find lying around. Instead, all journalism is manufactured truth, to some degree. No matter the source, readers must ask why it was made and what demands it was created to meet. The right question isn’t “Is this news true?” but “Why was this presented as news?”
Such a question is particularly important on Facebook, where news stories must compete with baby pictures and cooking videos via algorithm. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that 66 percent of Facebook users go to the site for news, and 62 percent of American adults source their news on social media generally. Yet no matter how accurate that news turns out to be, the data on who and how many clicked is all too real. Scrupulous or not, publishers benefit when they run the type of story they know their audience wants.
Unlike any content distributor to come before it, Facebook collapses two often antithetical goals: being informed and fitting in socially. Its users assess information’s usefulness not in terms of its objectivity, but by how entertained and included it makes them feel. To share biased content with our peers is to express who we are: Look! What I always suspected really does describe the world!
Facebook is great at engaging and connecting us. But telling the truth about what we need to hear, especially when we don’t want to hear it, has always been a more delicate matter. Zuckerberg’s next challenge may be to stop pretending Facebook can do both.
“The Fourth Estate matters because we need a dedicated core of people to uncover, analyze, explain, and contextualize facts. America’s best hope may be for journalists to do their jobs despite Trump’s attempts to bully them. We must chase down untold stories, file Freedom of Information Act requests, and always point out when Trump is lying.” —Libby Watson, reporter for open government advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation
PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS tried to perpetrate hoaxes. From jackalopes to yellow journalism, the smartest approach to not-quite-believable phenomena has been caveat emptor. But it’s easier now to be a dirty trickster and detach stories from satirical points of origin or create mischief using Photoshop. Whether fake news reporters want to influence your vote or make money, they’re taking advantage of a recent surge in skepticism around mainstream media. But we must be able to go somewhere for a baseline sense of what’s going on in the world—it’s impossible to check everything out firsthand. How can we tell what’s trustworthy?
CHECK EVERYTHING, DOWN TO THE PUNCTUATION It isn’t obvious when a well-executed fake story is fake. But it’s always obvious when a poorly executed one is fake. Look for bad spelling, bad grammar, and bad punctuation. Do all the links work? Do the site’s other stories appear authentic? If a mistake has been made previously, is this the kind of publication that would admit to it with a correction?
VERIFY THE SOURCE Know that con artists are disseminating bad information and we can’t just swallow everything that comes our way. Yes, fake stories can pop up in many places, but before you share, what does Snopes say? How about The New York Times? If it seems too good or too juicy to be true, it probably is.
SUSPECT THOSE WHO BLAME THE MESSENGER There’s a well-established political strategy that boils down to this: If you don’t like what’s being reported about you and you’re starting to sweat, take the spotlight off yourself by turning it on those “unethical” journalists. The classic example is somebody who claims they were misquoted in the newspaper, casting doubt on the integrity of the person doing the reporting.
By Russell Frank, as told to Katie Wudel
SOMEWHAT PARADOXICALLY, this election showed both the vital importance of investigative journalism and the limits of its capacity to influence the world. Every journalist I know is deeply troubled by our inability to break through to the audiences that are most critical to reach. We have no alternative but to keep trying, though we’ll be facing an administration with a demonstrated hostility toward press freedom that will have at its disposal an incredibly powerful surveillance apparatus already expanded by President Obama, who prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Now more than ever, journalists will need First Amendment lawyers and digital security tools. At First Look Media, our Press Freedom Litigation Fund supports media outlets facing legal threats and intimidation. Deep investigative reporting is famously resource-intensive, but there are models out there for real news that succeeds— from the not-failing New York Time to BuzzFeed and nonprofit outlets such as The Intercept, the Marshall Project, or ProPublica.
By Betsy Reed, as told to Katie Wudel
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