Fake news can undermine people’s faith in politics completely and in that sense Facebook is right: fake news is a threat to democracy.
Fake news, how to win audience trust, civilian journalism, shrinking budgets in newsrooms: all of these subjects and more were discussed during the News Xchange conference on the 15th and 16th of November. The conference about contemporary journalism and its future was held in Amsterdam this year and Medium was there to report about it. They call it ‘the news industry’s most provocative and most insightful experience’ with speakers from companies like CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Facebook, Google and Twitter. With fake news being the highest issue on the news agenda that modern-day journalism has to deal with: it is interesting to disclose on this issue and how to tackle it.
Fake news is a hot topic in both media and politics right now, and for that reason, it did not go by unmentioned on the conference. Multiple speakers elaborated on the subject: Mandy Jenkins from Storyful explained how fake news comes about and invited two other journalists to speak about their experiences with fake news in a working environment. Furthermore, Facebook explained why they see fake news as a huge threat and how they try to tackle it.
The rise of fake news
According to Jenkins, we should see the internet as if you were to look at an iceberg in the water. The public sphere of the internet is just the tip of the iceberg that you can see from the surface, but the bigger part of the iceberg is under water and can’t be seen by everyone. The tip of the iceberg is the open and public internet, which has a lot of reach. Right underneath the surface, we can find the semi-private internet. This includes websites like Reddit and 4Chan, where there is more sharing and fluid discussion. Semi-private internet has less reach but a lot of influence. Underneath this part of the internet, we can find closed networks like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook groups. You need to be invited to participate and it consists of peer-to-peer messaging. The bottom of the iceberg is the dark web, where information is stored and people can store and share both legal and illegal information. The dark web consists out of information with the most security. Information flows from the bottom to the top and so does fake news.
People often think that information they recognize or have seen often is true
Fake news usually comes from semi-private or closed groups. It goes around enough for the source to become untraceable. People often think that information they recognize or have seen often is true. For this reason, fake information that goes around semi-private and closed groups seems to constantly get confirmed in the eyes of the receiver. Receivers get angry at the mainstream media for not reporting about these fake news items and start seeing the spreaders of fake news as the hero minority who report about things the mainstream media won’t report about. Therefore, some mainstream media start picking up these items. To prevent this from happening, the mainstream media should always state their sources so people can fact check themselves. But, of course, sharing sources is only possible when the safety of a source is guaranteed.
There is another tactic that spreaders of fake news often follow. They start Twitter or Facebook accounts, initially disguised as funny accounts. They post funny comments, memes or videos or retweet funny things in order to be followed, shared and liked. This is how they build up a big audience. After a while, these accounts change from funny and harmless to politically inclined and serious. Often, they spread fake news or extremist political views lacking in valid argumentation.
How does a big company like Facebook tackle fake news?
Facebook sees fake news as a big problem. They see the interference of trolls as an attack to internet freedom and democracy. Another important reason for Facebook to tackle fake news is that false news is negatively affecting people’s trust in social media, as it provides a platform for people to spread this false news on. This means that fake news is not just an integrity issue, but also a business issue. They feel like Facebook has a responsibility for creating a space with better information and working together with fact checkers to spread truthful information. This is also why they’re changing their advertising policy so that fake news through buying advertising space or the sponsoring of content can be stopped. To prevent hate speech and false content from spreading, Facebook wants to change their policies – including advertising policies- so that sources of information need to be mentioned by displaying the publisher’s logo and introducing an eye button with a publisher’s background information as a news organization. Facebook feels a need to develop tools to help people judge the reliability of a source.
Facebook feels a need to develop tools to help people judge the reliability of a source
They feel that the best way to tackle fake news is not just by stopping the bad things from happening, but also lifting the better. This is why they are working on a lot of innovations to make this possible. Facebook is making it easier for people to track the sources of news by making it easier to access them and to get into more direct contact with them through subscribing for newsletters. Facebook wants people to be informed consumers of news who are capable of judging a source. Moneywise, Facebook is funding news literacy projects and they started the Facebook Journalism Project. In the latter, Facebook tries to connect more closely with journalists and collaborate with experts to finally ask them what the tools are they need to get their point across better.
Fake news indeed is threat to democracy
It is good to see that media professionals and companies are taking the threat of fake news so seriously and that they are doing their best to determine how it comes about. Especially with politicians in the US, but also in the Netherlands, contributing to fake news. The audience needs to be informed on every aspect of fake news and educated on how to determine the reliability of a source. Mostly, because the consequences of fake news can be huge. Fake news can undermine people’s faith in politics completely, and in that sense Facebook is right: Fake news is a threat to democracy.
Cover: Gilda Bruno / Final editing: Ramona Nouse