Facebook has rolled out a new feature to combat what it sees as the epidemic of “fake news” flying around its site. The added function will allow a Facebook user to flag posts as “fake news” and report the same to Facebook. Now, what isn’t immediately clear is who is the judge or censor who will intervene to remove the offending article or whether it’s just an algorithm that stops an article from spreading and being shared. Facebook has noted that it will likely partner with sites like Snopes and ABCNews as well as the Associated Press in order to render fact check decisions. This has raised concerns of those on the right who see those sites as having either a leftward tilt or, at least, a tilt towards establishment media sources.
Let’s start out this commentary by acknowledging the truth: there are a lot of poorly-sourced and outlandish “news” stories that are shared on both Facebook and Twitter (as well as other social media platforms). Yes, we’ll get to what “fake news” is here in a second, but we do have to start from a place of understanding that a problem does, indeed, exist. When Aunt Mildred, who you’ve only seen at one family reunion seven years ago begins to spam “Obama has a secret plan to kill all the puppies in America” or when Uncle Bert, the same one whose funeral you swear was last year, shares a link to a story “Trump is a member of the KKK and Illuminati,” there’s an indication of a problem.
Now, do Uncle Bert and Aunt Mildred believe the stories that they are sharing to their friends and family? Maybe. The problem is, at least as Facebook sees it, that Cousin Butch, who never was all that bright, takes a few lines from one of the articles and then posts about how there’s now “Proof Obama Eats Dogs” or “Breaking: Trump a Member of the Klan.” These sort of interactions and posts get shared and make their way across people’s social networks.
We should really be calling this “news pollution” or “fanciful realism” rather than what has become a dog-whistle term: “fake news.” Frankly, as long as there’s been a semi-reliable means of publication, “fake news” has existed. By this, I don’t mean propaganda, which is a wholly different subset of journalism-versus-opinion debate. Rather, tabloids and “grocery store checkout magazines” have been full of demonstrably “fake news” for decades.
The average person knows that the farmer didn’t shoot an angel in his backyard and that isn’t really the father of Chelsea Clinton’s love child. Rather, tabloid “journalism” takes real people or semi-real events and fictionalizes them without any regard for editorial standards or review. There are two goals of this type of “fake news”: to get people to buy the magazine and for entertainment.
The goal of the tabloid, for lack of a better term, is not to be believed. This stands in opposition to the “real news,” that is to say the “newspapers and sources of record.” Now, again, before we jump on the bias inherent in modern media sources, it’s important to recognize the historical distinction. There has certainly been, and there continues to be, bias in the press and what we’ll call the “institutional” or “establishment” media. Humans producing the news have never shown themselves very capable of presenting news without bias.
Certainly we understand that bias originates from both coverage and lack of coverage. Deciding on the words used to describe an event, a person, or an activity, even when not meant to color a viewer or reader’s opinion, are of critical importance when that individual is shaping his or her view on the issue being presented. The easiest examples of this type of bias is in the “terrorist” versus “freedom fighter” discussion or even the “undocumented migrant” versus “illegal alien” debate. This goes further, and begins to fit into the larger discussion of “fake news” when we look at the editorial decision of what is “newsworthy” and what is covered. We understand, implicitly, that there is more “news” going on in the world, more facts transpiring, than any one newspaper, magazine, or broadcast could cover. Therefore, even if we had totally objective presentations of the news, the events and stories left on the “cutting room floor” are, in their lack of coverage, an indication of bias.
Enter the 21st century, the internet, and, more importantly, social media. Over just the past decade, we have seen the growth of social media among adults and older consumers. Now, this will not be an indictment of “Grandma sharing a crazy story,” but rather it’s used to underscore the fact that social media is now one of, if not the largest mediums by which the majority of people get their news. What was once a place where you and your college buddies shared pictures of the party last week has evolved into a place where the news of the day, from everywhere in the world, is being discussed.
As we understand, there are limits to what the establishment media can cover. However, there is really no limit to what can be covered through a democratized, or crowd-sourced, version of reporting. The obvious case-in-point is what do people do when they witness something that is particularly noteworthy going on? They are taking out their phones to capture the event on video and get it up online. This isn’t a criticism of the practice. Actually, from the perspective of breaking important news, places like Facebook and Twitter are the first locations to make the reports.
Though individual reporting has become an important source of information, we also know how it can be used to spread disinformation. The go-to examples here would include reports of a shooting or the well-meaning-but-incorrect spread of death tolls from catastrophic events. Most recently, this phenomenon was on display when Senator Tim Kaine (Hillary Clinton’s running mate) was tweeting about a gunman at Ohio State University. It turned out the gunman was a knife-wielding terrorist.
The other disturbing development, especially on Twitter, has been the immediate, reflexive, desire to put a spin on an event or catastrophe. For example, like a tragic mass-shooting, as the news breaks, without any other confirmation, you will have gun control advocates shouting from the rafters that this incident, about which they have no evidence, was wholly preventable. Simultaneously, before there is any confirmation of the shooter’s identity, you will have those on the hard-right wanting to crack down on Islamic “terrorists.”
This climate is exacerbated by the advent of blogs and independent news sites that have no editorial oversight or journalistic mandate for (at least attempted) objectivity. (Yes, like this site). Individuals, like those who write the stories on the right and left that are shared by Aunt Mildred and Uncle Bert, understand that they can be as sensational as they want. If they write a catchy title, maybe throw in a few dubious links to “prove” their point, and put up a photo with some “proof” written on it, they know that they can get people to click on their article and visit their website. If enough people visit the site, they can gain notoriety and popularity and influence more people. All of this can be done without the peskiness of fact checking or any editorial oversight.
Enter the “establishment” media. You would think that, given this backdrop, they would feel compelled by their notions of journalistic integrity to present the news in an objective and unbiased manner. However, cynically or not, the news is also a business. Advertising and clicks to websites (as well as paid subscriptions) govern many of the editorial decisions being made in the news industry. Most of the time, despite a liberal or conservative bent, this isn’t necessarily harmful. For instance, if Donald Trump punches the President of Mexico, it is news and it will get covered. It will also get clicks and advertising will be fine. Now, clearly there are concerns about the editorial presentation of the “Trump Punches President of Mexico” coverage, but the fact that it will at least reach consumers is an important step. However, that raises the concern, as we discussed earlier, about the “cutting room floor” decisions made over what stories are covered.
If stories about Donald Trump, regardless of whether they are positive, objective, or critical, draw ten times the clicks online than stories about Third World poverty rates or the Prime Minister of Japan, then there is a new dimension to the editorial bias: do you run three Trump stories and maximize profit, or do you attempt to broaden coverage? This was a big concern during the Republican Primaries when it was felt that Donald Trump was receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage. Anyone feigning not to understand the reason behind this was obviously not looking at the numbers: Trump sells.
This is certainly not a unique phenomenon to 2016 or to the institutional media. However, the confluence of factors including social media growth and the need for the institutional media to compete with rising newcomers (Breitbart, etc) that do not have the same story vetting process that other established sources have had, does seem unprecedented. Added to this is the very real, and possibly quite concerning, fact that reporters are on social media, especially Twitter, and giving their opinions about the same issues that they cover. While, again, we can’t fault people for having opinions, the concern does arise about the extent of objectivity in traditional media reports.
So, what does all of this have to do with “fake news” and the decision of Facebook to allow the reporting of the same? Well, it gets to the question of who gets to decide what “fake” is. While most of the examples we’ve used here have been fictitious, we are aware of what we’d otherwise call “conspiracy” articles that flood around the dark corners of the internet. Poorly sourced and poorly researched allegations can ruin people’s lives and careers. However, we also live in a world where the institutional news sources have established a bias of their own.
I don’t buy the tabloids that talk about bat boy’s love affair with Princess Diana and Gandhi’s secret nuclear arsenal under the Taj Mahal. Some people do. Most people realize these type of stories are, demonstrably, fake. Fantastical realism: taking real-people and putting them in fictionalized situations. However, we have not undertaken as a society to ban tabloids. We simply understand that they are not real.
Would I prefer that “fake news” not appear in my timeline? Sure. Again, it’s the same reason I don’t buy the tabloid. However, is the arbiter of fake news the same arbiter who is making an editorial or biased decision on establishment media choices?
Here is where the waters get murky on the discussion of “fake news.” At what point do we move from the absurd to the opinionated? We can agree that a tag for tabloid-style “news” is justified insofar as it’s fanciful. However, if someone is sharing a poorly-source piece, but that piece is being presented as opinion rather than fact, should it still be labeled as “fake news”?
Here’s a fictional example: “Obama refuses to tell marines Merry Christmas because he’s a Muslim” versus “I think Obama is a Muslim because he refuses to tell marines Merry Christmas!” You can see the distinction. The first should be labeled as fanciful tabloid fodder. However, the second is presented as opinion rather than as fact. Regardless of the erroneous nature of the opinion, is it “fake news” as that term is not being thrown around?
Again, we are using some outlandish examples here, but, let’s be more practical. Will individuals, first, flag news stories they simply don’t agree with as “fake news,” and, second, will editorialized establishment media stories be subject to the same classifications?
CNN got in a degree of trouble over adding parenthetical “fact checks” to Donald Trump’s speeches during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. For example, part of Mr. Trump’s campaign stump speech for a while was the inclusion of the line “President Obama was the founder of ISIS.” CNN coyly included in its chyron “(He’s not).” So, what is the “fake news” in this scenario? Certainly we can be sure that, no, President Obama did not secretly fly to Syria and draft the charter of the Islamic State, however, as Trump pointed out, the Islamic State did come to precedence under the Obama Administration.
Now, if we see the CNN story on Trump’s comments about Obama and ISIS along with a story about Trump claiming Obama was the founder of ISIS, do we report either of the stories? The rationale for reporting the Trump claim is obvious: it is not the literal fact. The rationale for reporting the CNN story is that it is failing to accurately report what Mr. Trump implied from his talk.
In my mind, we report neither. We are all adults enough to understand that Mr. Trump’s style of speaking is more about “the gist” of what he’s saying while CNN is attempting to get clicks and analyze Mr. Trump as if he were a traditional politician (He’s not).
However, Facebook has now put us in a difficult partisan box that also implicates the right to free expression. Certainly, let’s be clear: Facebook is a private company and can adopt whatever standards it would like. However, when we are contemplating the way in which we police the ideas expressed by our neighbors, the implications are a bit more complex.
While no one needs to heed the warning, it may be best not to use the “fake news” flag until we either see a change in establishment media sources, or see our relatives and friends begin to separate tabloids from opinion. I would, though, encourage you to flag disinformation and dishonesty when you see it.