Fake news in the era of journalism challenges

We have a new kind of “fake news” which is actual news stories that rely on false or fake information.

A newsstand in Manhattan outfitted with ‘Fake News’ headlines was a stunt by the ‘Columbia Journalism Review,’ in October 2018. (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
A newsstand in Manhattan outfitted with ‘Fake News’ headlines was a stunt by the ‘Columbia Journalism Review,’ in October 2018.
An interesting and important debate is raging on social media about the low pay given to freelancers. The debate looks at the rates that many freelancers get, ranging from zero to a few hundred dollars for thousands of words. Overall, the consensus is that these are near as possible to starvation pay for ostensibly quality content, and that people shouldn’t even attempt to enter journalism via the “freelancer” path.
This debate seems to bookend several years in which there has been a crescendo of accusations of “fake news.” It began during the 2016 US elections, when voices on the Left pointed out that some websites or social media memes supporting then-Republican candidate Donald Trump were pushing “fake news.” In those old days, the concept of “fake news” was quite different than today. It was actually fake news sites pushing false stories, most of them entirely made up.
The BBC noted that “these fake sites, which deliberately imitate a genuine news platform, are increasingly common.” The links to them were not suppressed by social media, so they spread virally. Today that doesn’t happen: Social media algorithms have changed significantly and things rarely spread virally – and social media giants like Facebook have cracked down on “fake news,” even cracking down on legitimate news in the process.
Anger regarding fake news boiled over in 2016 with suggestions that it helped tip the US election and that it may have been paid for by foreign governments. At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he thought the idea that fake news “of which it’s a small amount of content, [could] influence the election is a pretty crazy idea.” But there was a lot of this fake news at the time. Some of it was not even really “news,” just obviously nonsensical tabloid-like stories. Some articles even found the people behind the “fake news”: random guys paid to churn out ridiculous stories and choose the most shocking photos they could find to illustrate them.
Those were the innocent, old days. But after the 2016 election, things began to change. As the concept of “fake news” was seen as the crucible through which Trump was elected, many voices opposed to Trump began to label large swaths of right-wing media personalities as purveyors of fake news – and Trump’s supporters also labeled CNN and other sites, perceived as being on the Left, as “fake.” Trump became a major pusher of the idea that critical voices were “fake.”
The accusation that major news media were “fake” has eroded the whole concept of journalism and caused those on the Left and Right to distrust views that come from across the aisle.
It has turned a generation of media consumers into extreme partisans and eroded public trust in journalism as an institution. Part of this erosion comes from the fact that journalists are also more open about their views on social media. One doesn’t have the filter of the publication and the editors between the journalist and the reader. Now, one can just follow their favorite writer online. Depending on the newsroom, many of these writers are quite open about their views and who they follow or who they retweet. Oddly, the globalized news media and the increased access social media provides has resulted in a relatively insular media culture that tends to push more and more narrow storylines. There is a kind of chiseling down of the political spectrum as this process accelerates, creating a vicious cycle of partisanship and media.
It is perhaps not surprising, given the low freelancer rates described above – and the feeling that freelancers shouldn’t even enter the business – that there will be a kind of boiling down of journalism, fewer voices, less people, and more centralized, less diverse, views. What happens in such an environment is that it is susceptible to the fake news that it is trying to confront. Except that this isn’t the kind of “fake news” we used to talk about.
IN THE old days when we spoke of “fake news,” the idea was news stories that were fake in which the writers knew they were fake and they were paid to create fake stories. The whole model was a fake silo designed at some point to vomit out the story onto social media to get clicks. Then the concept of “fake news” moved into the political realm with accusations that basically all media, particularly legacy or “elite” media, were fake.
But we have a new kind of “fake news” which is actual news stories that rely on false or fake information. This may begin with a kind of ur-text that is false, exaggerated or purposely fake that gets picked up and laundered via “real” news. During the recent controversy over Amazon forest fires, many images shared online showed fires burning in a forest with hashtags. “The most widely shared tweet using that hashtag – with more than a million likes and retweets – includes two aerial images of forest fires, neither of which show the current situation.” One of them was from 1989 showing fires from Siberia and the US. So people were outraged about Amazon fires, while viewing fires from the US. Many people, including trustworthy verified Twitter accounts, shared these kinds of images. Another news story from June about Dutch euthanasia got key information wrong.
In another real-news-imitates-fake-news story, discussions about an image of an Iranian missile launch shared by Trump, widely accused the US president of sharing classified photos. “Trump shares revealing image” and “did Trump tweet classified military imagery?” were headlines. But these real news stories didn’t get readers any closer to the ostensible “truth,” because we don’t know what we don’t know.
This tautology actually embodies one of the central problems with real news today. In the pursuit of being first or getting clicks, or just being sensational and cutting-edge, it is more rare to see commentators say they just don’t know. This has fed a news cycle that is more prone to rely on false or misleading information and is thus more open to being accused of being “fake.” It isn’t purposely “fake”: It is trying to spread real information but is sometimes repackaging and laundering false information.
One of the reasons for this goes back to the problem mentioned in the beginning: declining budgets and declining staffs. As newsrooms get smaller and must rely solely on information found online – with fewer journalists in the field and fewer veteran journalists who can ask the right questions to good sources – there is a greater chance that numerous major media outlets will rely on false stories spread online by smaller media concerns that got their stories from social media. In such a way, a random tweet can become “major news” even if it is entirely invented. That’s dangerous. But it’s not always fake: Sometimes it’s just misleading and based on ignorance.