Weaponized opinion: how do you combat fake news? | Politics Chat

By: Patrick Zimmerman, Valerie Hunt, James Stout, Rich W. Sharp, Louie Dean Valencia García, & Brian Werth

Greetings on this bright and sunny day on the Internet (whatever your location, it’s a rule that it’s always sunny on the Interwebs)!

Welcome to our third politics chat: Weaponized opinion: how do you combat fake news?

Participating, we have:

Today’s two main lines of discussion:

  • What’s the difference between opinion shapers online and opinion shapers with press credentials? Is there a hard boundary between those two polls, or a gradient? And where is it? Should there be a distinction, and if so how do you make one?
  • The logistical problem of combating fake news, focusing more on concrete solutions and a little less on theory and definitions.


Table of contents

Because this one covers a lot, we’ve provided a handy index below to help you navigate to the parts that interest you most!

  1. Legitimacy and experts. What counts as news? Who gets to make it?
  2. Trusted: How the press became the 4th estate. It’s ticket to respectability? “Objective” government sources.
  3. Information v. entertainment. Is there a market for boring news?
  4. Content marketing and news. Money for promotion and distribution of news tends to corrode legitimacy.
  5. Proposed solutions. Ok, #fakenews is a problem. This is known. So what do we do about it by November 2018’s midterm elections?



The discussion

Note: The transcript below has been edited for length and in a (possibly fruitless) search for coherent and logical thought.


Legitimacy and experts: What counts as news?

BurntCitrus – I think there are probably quite a few differences between opinion shapers online and opinion shapers with press credentials, but some that come to mind first are surrounded by questions of “legitimacy”—who has the authority to contribute to public opinion—a sort of “vetting process”. Those without press creds (or other such creds, such as academic) are less likely to have “authority” when they enter the public sphere. Newspapers/magazine/etc. gained their authority over time—often decades or centuries even. When a publication becomes “mainstream,” usually, it’s because they are known (and trusted in some sense) by their fragment of the public.
That said, those who don’t have those creds, do attract a readership as well, but often that readerships is intentionally trying to find “non-mainstream” perspectives… which can (and often does) perpetuate some sort of fringe element to it. I don’t think this is inherently bad—we need diversity of opinions—but the absolute distrust of a professional class, whether scientists or trained journalists, simply because it is represented in a “mainstream” press, should be something of concern.
Though, as we’ve seen with the rise of the Alt-Right, the creation of a far-right “alt-press” (Breitbart, AltRight.com, etc.) should be worrying, because it’s a media that doesn’t hold professional standards which at least made lip service to accuracy.

Andrew Breitbart
Andrew Breitbart | Photo credit: Shal Farley.

bwerthrx – An important element of this conversation that I do not think should be overlooked is the way folks interact with information online. It is true that a certain authority comes from a news/media organization’s brand and track record but I would argue that that is becoming less important. Most people do not go directly to the NYT website to look for news. They go to Google, and Facebook, and Twitter, and YouTube.
I think that the algorhithms that serve us up content legitimizes sketchy sources because the business model of the internet is clicks. These bottlenecks that control the content that we see first are not built with the mission to deliver the most accurate information to the greatest number of people, they are optimized to get the greatest number of eyeballs on ads and the greatest number of clicks.
It is important to remember that we are not the consumers of content on the internet, we are the commodity. So, when you turn to Google to find news stories, whatever opinions/reporting/outright falsehoods they serve up at the top of the page legitimizes that content to some extent. When that content is outrageous and clickable it creates a positive feedback loop and that platform will spread it everywhere. So I guess I’m arguing that these platforms can put fringe opinions, which are ok to have in an open and free democracy, on equal footing with careful and ethical press institutions.

rsharp – So legitimacy isn’t as simple as established vs. fringe. One the one hand, we have storied periodicals such as America’s Finest News Source and everybody’s favorite English language party organ, the Pyongyang Times. On the other, I like to consider principallyuncertain.com as legit.
So I’d like to dig into the idea of legitimacy a bit more. First, I apologize for taking the overly simplistic view of the arguments above, but if we want to know “how do we combat fake news” we’ll have to be able to call it out. However, if the responsibility for policing it falls to the Googles and Facebooks of the world, then these kinds of simplistic rules will crop up. The little guy will lose out to the big guy. So what happens to folks like Daphne Caruana Galizia?
A thought experiment: How can we tell that Stevan Dojcinovic’s opinion piece isn’t fake news?
Another, messy question: what side of the line does Blog Del Narco fall on? A bit of a warning, if you haven’t encountered BDN before (as I hadn’t until recently), it’s a place that graphically presents the drug war using on the ground photographs and video from any source. The idea is to present an unfiltered view of the drug war without the government filter that the official media tends to put in place. But this also means posting revenge phtographs from the narcos themselves. In other words, clickers beware.
Anyway, back to the original line of thought – if it’s up to the centralized powers of the internet to police fake news, then what’s the proper objective function (they will use an objective function): what should be penalized and what should be rewarded when judging fake news? Can there be a decentralized policing of fake news on a centralized internet?

pzed – So one of the things that @BurntCitrus’s and @rsharp’s discussion of legitimacy brings up is also whether outlets online appear to be compromised. Legitimacy is clearly associated with expertise, Louie, and you’re right, we’re in a very anti-intellectual climate. But it’s also pretty hard to disentangle that from someone’s (appearance) of independence. The right and far right have definitely tapped into pre-existing mistrust of, for example, the “Amazon Washington Post.”
@bwerthrx makes a really important point about the delivery method for a lot of news; much of it is filtered, which through selective surfacing of (to stay with the original example) only negative news stories and op eds about the GOP, erodes the legitimacy of the Post among some ~37% of the population. The bubble effect.
Of course, fake news injection erodes the legitimacy of all sources, really. So maybe the solution that @BurntCitrus is alluding to is a stronger line of demarcation between professional and unprofessional. A recentralization of opinion formation.
Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite? A Nation turns it’s lonely eyes to you……
Not sure I agree that’s feasible. [something something horses barn doors]

Walter Cronkite
And that’s the way it was. | Photo credit: Library of Congress.

BurntCitrus – I think maybe one of the things we could also talk about here, thinking of @bwerthrx’s point, is the division between creation and distribution. News media of yore in some way were responsible for their own distribution, and that has gone to the wayside with social media distribution. Though, I do think the NPRs/NYTimes have managed to regain some of that with phone app alerts distribution. However, longer-form news has certainly gone to the wayside.

pzed – Good point @BurntCitrus. Yes, let’s. It’s also true that “Fake News” is three related problems:

  1. The creation of fake stories (for whatever reason).
  2. Their distribution (either knowingly or unwittingly).
  3. Their uptake by an audience.
Parts 2 and 3 in the viral world of the internet tend to overlap a whole lot. And, as you point out, the older media model is that parts 1 and 2 were by the same people. Now that tends to be what’s less centralized (particularly the distribution aspect).

bwerthrx – I think it is useful to think of the problem in these 3 parts and I think that part 1 is the most critical intervention point. My sense of this based on interviews I’ve seen with fake news producers is that their creation of stories is motivated by profit and the root problem is the advertising model. I don’t think that people want to be deceived, or actively look for fake stories to spread but confirmation bias is a hell of drug. I do believe that there are bad actors and ideologues with malicious intentions, but I think that the way forward would be to disrupt the profit model and to increase transparency of the content source. Is it absurdly naive to hope that one day we will pay for content on the internet and that will incentivize rigor and reliability, which we all at least think that we want, instead of flashy snippets of misleading clickbait?

BurntCitrus – For some reason, that (tired?) old adage, “you get what you pay for,” is ringing in my ears. Though I think that’s too simple. We give away our data, buying habits, etc. in exchange for fake news. The curious thing for me is that I rarely see bad news sources coming across my feed. Though this might say something about my particular echo chamber.
To say nothing of auto-generated stories.

rsharp – So I’m hooked right now by your third point @pzed – uptake by an audience. I’ve been buying into the argument “Fake news is bad and distributors (Facebook) need to stop it.” Well, the consequence of placing the burden on the distributor is (as we’ve said) that they control the filter, and the filter is a weapon that can be used to shape public opinion and therefore political outcomes in the interest of the filter’s designer, not the public.
So now I’m noodling on placing the burden of stopping fake news on the consumer. Transparency and a follow the money approach (that is, open public control of the incentives that create the opportunity for the profit motivation @bwerthrx points out) are good but vaguely-defined tools. We’ve also, in earlier debate, fallen back to the need for an educated public to solve similar issues. This all sounds pretty far fetched in the face of clickbait. If news is entertainment, then mentally taxing problems like checking your source won’t fly.
Maybe I’m missing the good old days when news and banking were boring.
Hmm, so is news now entertainment even more so than before because the president is a pure showman?
Is this a fire that feeds on itself?

Zuckerberg
Is a social media platform responsible for policing fake news? | Photo credit: David Berkowitz.

BurntCitrus – That third point seems to underline a sort of absence of critical thinking by the reader—the ability to expect the thinking and analysis to be done by someone else. If we can’t trust the creators, then we blame the distributors, but ultimately, it has to come back to the readers. But what happens when a reader doesn’t have the education, context, or questions? I don’t want this to fall squarely on the reader either. It’s, in many ways, a failure of the entire system.

rsharp – Bingo @BurntCitrus. Of course now I’m stuck on so what do you do about it.
Due to total personal bias, I’m trying to squeeze something or of a Mozilla/open source approach: Public editing of the filters and reputation scores with a foundation to back the server costs?

BurntCitrus – I do think that training and expertise should matter—do we want to consider open source news as something in which all opinions/perspectives are equal… because I’m not sure I agree with that model. Tom Nichols’s “The Death of Expertise” is also ringing in my ears.

bwerthrx – I like the concept of open source to some degree but not in an unfiltered pure form where all users can edit and add content.

rsharp – Ooh goody, debate time. So who is legitimate? Now “open source” doesn’t necessarily mean “without experts”, that’s where the foundation bit comes in.

bwerthrx – I knew that was comming…

rsharp – Maybe experts are elected.

rsharp – But also, I’m worried that any approach has to allow newcomers and small outlets. So I worry about centralization.

BurntCitrus – Honestly, the question of legitimacy is less interesting to me than determining expertise. A person can be a legitimate leader, with no expertise… for example.

rsharp – Certainly.

BurntCitrus – Expertise should speak for itself. What we’ve done societally, in older models, was determined a way in which we believed legitimacy (pedigree) was supposed to match expertise. We’ve either seen that erode, or realised it was never as such.

rsharp – And before it slips my mind, another goal for any approach should not be a single filter, but many.

BurntCitrus – Agreed with that.

rsharp – So how do we strike a middle ground then, not behemoths but not individuals? Some sort of small and district community that can represent both interests.

bwerthrx – This might be tangential but what do you think about anonymity on the internet and is that a key aspect of this problem?

BurntCitrus – Absolutely!

rsharp – Ooh, great point @bwerthrx.

BurntCitrus – I think, we are lacking a sort of accountability to each other, which the anonymity of the internet facilitates. When we can hold people responsible, the system works better.

bwerthrx – Agreed but what about the freedom to express unpopular ideas without persecution? My general sense is that anonymity is destructive to discourse but that is coming from someone with little to no concern that my ideas or the expression of them will lead to negative outcomes for me.

BurntCitrus – I’m more on board with the European model when it comes to expressing unpopular ideas… if something promotes hate/violence, I’m okay with people ostracizing those voices out of discourse, depriving them of a platform. The problem with absolute free speech is that it can also potentially promote falsehoods, and treats them as equal.

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Trusted: How the American Press became the 4th estate

Press
The Press v. Richard Milhouse Nixon | Photo credit: US House of Representatives.

pzed – It looks as if we’re debating two points, really, here.

  1. How do you determine legitimacy in news (and entertainment, for that matter)?
  2. Does all speech being allowed necessarily lead to a system where it is all treated as equally valuable (or meaningful, or influential, or whatever)?
@BurntCitrus Since when did expertise speak for itself in areas of knowledge or public opinion formation? Sure, expertise speaks for itself in, say, golf. You sink ball faster than other person. It’s pretty clear.

dr.awesome@BurntCitrus and @pzed, not all speech needs to be allowed nor should be allowed. Free speech to most means “unencumbered” or “without constraints.” But freedom cannot occur outside of community. As such, freedom is relational.
What we do (actions), what we say (speech) cannot be extant apart from the responsibilities of maintaining the integrity and well-being of community—in our case, the integrity and wellbeing of our demos. So, free speech is better understood as responsible speech in service to the demos. From there, we can begin analyzing what currently exists and interrogate what we want to exist and strategize about what we need to do to get the kind of free speech we consider sufficient for our demos.
Deciding what’s news has been a conundrum for those of us who believe a strong democracy lives and dies on whether the polity has information that allows it to make good decisions. There is a reason why the first amendment is to secure the freedom of press, so we want to pay attention to the reality that the press–whether mainstream or alternative—adhere to two imperatives:

  1. As the fourth branch of government, the press has the imperative to provide accurate, timely and relevant information to the public.
We rely on the press to tell us what’s going on, because as members of a republic, citizens and denizens cannot be at all places at all times to gather relevant and accurate information in order to properly execute our responsibilities in deciding who governs on our behalf, when they need to be shitcanned, what issues and policies we would like for these stewards of the public interest to undertake or to table, and generally know how we are a community(ies) are doing.
So deciding what’s news is VERY important in order to legitimately carry out this first imperative as the fourth estate.
  1. Because the press is also a business it must adhere to the imperative to make a profit in order to exist.
Ahhhh…..
These two imperatives are…..well, hell, I’ll just come out and say it. The fourth estate imperative and the business survival imperatives are antithetical. Even before we became a nation, the pursuit of these two imperatives made for some uneasy renderings of what passes for legitimacy. Our colleague Rich may remember the Princeton Packet from his Jersey days. Legitimacy back in the day (colonial and nascent nation period of the United States of America) meant news that was generated, and distributed by a publisher who mainly wrote on behalf of and the perspective of the the governing body. Accuracy was not a criterion, nor was…..wait for it…..objectivity! (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she used the o-word.)
Given our (our, meaning the State) move to expand the franchise to white males without money or land (you go, Andrew Jackson) in our -then- expanding nation state, there was a need to democratize the press—make it cheap and available.

pzed:gasp!:

dr.awesome – So, Breitbart is not new. Facebook is not new.

pzed – Well, Facebook is new in the pace at which rumors and fake news can be distributed, and the breadth.

dr.awesome – But what is NOT new is the struggle to figure out how to reconcile the business imperative with the fourth estate imperative.

pzed – Agreed. No argument there.

dr.awesome – In a republic, we have small islands of democracies whereby the pace of rumors and fake news have always been a problem. Boy, I am from a small town and I know of what I speak about the spread of rumors and fake news. Just go to your local Walmart and listen to how a rumor can get started in the greeting cards section and spread rapidly to the cosmetics and deli sections before you can go check out.
The late 19th and 20th century rendering of this problem was that the press began to tout that legitimacy equates to objectivity. In the words of the mastermind hen Mac from Chicken Run, “what’s the plan?” The plan involved developing a news production process that could be considered objective and unbiased. The lynchpin was that objectivity would make the news source legitimate and thereby its product, the daily paper, worthy of being bought by homo politicus and his buddy homo economicus. Problem of making a buck (or three) while remaining the watchdog for the public: solved…
“…or was it?”
I return to our question of who decides what’s news. Mainstream and alternative press both use the news production process to claim legitimacy. However, they use the process differently. A side note, all news sources pay attention to the need to entertain their users; entertaining does not necessarily mean that news is fake or illegitimate. News producers would demarcate entertainment into the realm of what they called “soft news” (“hard news” was to inform—not to entertain). We are now in no woman’s land of what’s the difference between hard and soft news. But I digress…

pzed – Actually, not sure that’s a digression.

dr.awesome – The news production process for mainstream press involves relying upon what are considered authoritative sources in order to legitimate what was reported. @pzed who’s legit? Well, governmental actors like the chief of police, the mayor, you get the drift. So the maypoles of most mainstream news stories are governmental actors because in the objectivity game (which is also the legitimacy game), public servants by way of their roles render information factually. Bam!

pzed – So, clearly, the response of the experts is to re-create a universally recognized elite institution of knowledge so formidable that all bow before its legitimacy. The old Royal Society, Reborn!

dr.awesome – Yes! Yasss, King!

pzed – The deans of every school of higher learning in the whole world should have a giant melée. Survivor gets to host. Deans, not students, not faculty, but the guys (and a few girls) making the $500k+ salaries.

Royal Society
The Royal Society. Instant legitimacy: just add Isaac Newton. | Photo credit: The Wellcome Collection.

dr.awesome – So if you were to look at ANY so called hard news story–it will be based on information gathered from authoritative sources.

pzed – So when the EPA lies about climate change….

dr.awesome – In the old days we the public would not question the EPA’s information because the assumption is that in their role as public stewards of facts, they would never lie to us. Now we can have some fun chatting about the (false) dichotomy of mainstream and alternative news sources.

pzed – One of the better examples of the very fuzzy boundary between them: Buzzfeed. A couple years ago it was pure clickbait. No one would’ve taken it seriously. Now it’s probably closer to the mainstream.

dr.awesome – The mainstream press were able to lay claim to legitimacy by way of saying they were objective and unbiased and factual because of their adherence to authoritative sources.

pzed – And of course, regarding uptake by the audience (@rsharp’s point about how do you educate readers), The Onion totally scooped us. Again.

dr.awesome – Alternative press were able to lay claim to legitimacy by way of saying they were providing a public square for what was considered relevant and timely for their news users. Note, there was not claim to objectivity. Alternative news could and did often challenge authoritative sources. Outsider agitation, as it were.

pzed – Brietbart absolutely does that as often as possible. Fox News has done it’s share while trying to straddle that line.

dr.awesome@pzed Right! Here is the Fox News hat-trick:

  • Claim to be fair and unbiased.
  • Substantiate that claim by way of the news production process that allows you to use authoritative sources (just like the other guys, CNN and MSNBC).
  • While at the same time interrogating the legitimacy of the the mainstream with these very same authoritative sources.
Here is where the curtain gets pulled back revealing the Wizard—the more homogeneous the universe of authoritative sources, the tighter the bandwith on what is considered legitimate news–read objective, fair and balanced. All of the mainstream juggernauts are going to the same well to produce their stories.
Figuring out what is fake–we need to rethink what IS news? Then we can figure out what is real and what is fake, or if we even want to play that real/fake game at all.
What do I need to know to make a good decision?
When do I need to know it?
Who can I trust to give me the information I need?

BurntCitrus – @dr.awesome – To the point of objectivity not being a goal—a comparison to European press shows us that they idea of objectivity is clearly an American construction.
The proliferation of (bad) news today is also not new, we saw this in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as well (with the rise of pink and yellow news, in both the US and Europe). Most of that bad news can be attributed to, I think, a change in technology, and ability to create and distribute news. When a peak fervor was reached, readers asked for reliability, which eventually came—much of this was also at a peak time of governmental corruption and entanglement with business—particularly in places like New York. I think we are going to see a shift here, ultimately, in what was once considered legitimate news and what is tabloid/yellow. Once upon a time, Fox News Reels, were just as legitimate of a source as anything else. I think once the stakes are high enough, and if we still have a functioning democracy, some sort of crisis will have to require us (the public) to want solid news.

dr.awesome@BurntCitrus-you got it. Solid news. I like that a lot. I want news sources to do me a solid—all the time and every time.

BurntCitrus – AP, for some reason, is thought of as a sort of gold standard in the US. I think, because they attempt to take opinion out of the news, reporting things that happen. At that level, we require a critically engaged readership. At some point the “talking head” rose, who analyzes for us. We find the talking head we agree with. I really hope that model dies out sometime soon. For me, the talking head, most often reminds me of my students who write essays and refuse to cite sources.

dr.awesome – The news analysis used to be considered soft news. Now it is considered to be hard (i.e. real) news. I HATE news analysis.
HATE.
NEWS.
ANALYSIS.

BurntCitrus – Completely agree with you there.
The opinions page essentially now is mixed with the front page in the video medium. Is there something we can say about genre/new media? I’m not sure it’s just that, though. Also, I’ll say it… what’s the role of capitalism in all this? PBS and NPR seem to have been surviving the storm… for the most part.

dr.awesome – So, we have to be very intentional about helping people think for themselves in real time occurrences. Scratch that: we MUST be..

BurntCitrus – The precarity of political conversations…. to dare to attempt to engage and build consensus.

dr.awesome – right you are, @BurntCitrus. The news production process for mainstream press used to have clear lanes of hard news, soft news, entertainment, and opinion. The front page above the fold, the first five minutes of a 30 minute electronic–these were the sacrosanct spaces for reliable, accurate, timely information—aka news.
I come back to the hat trick of reconciling business and fourth estate—if you can get the news out quickly, reliably and accurately, why not get paid for doing so? We don’t look askance at a news source if it delivers those three things to us.

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Information v. entertainment

BurntCitrus – I think that is a fair. The question becomes, is there a demand for boring news?
I like to think about it in terms of my own profession (historian)…. I have people that tell me that history is so boring at least once a week. Other people tell me they LOVE history. The difference, I think, is that when presented in a way that is accessible and prepared in a way that let’s people have the tools to critically think.

pzed – Come on, @BurntCitrus. Where’s the appropriate comic panel or Hanson reference? V is for Vendetta (film version). “We’re the BTN. Our job is to report the news, not fabricate it.” seems appropriate here.

BurntCitrus – Hahahahaha. You know all my not-so-secret-secrets.

pzed – Everyone on Facebook, probably including your students, knows those secrets.
But the BTN quote does lead to @dr.awesome’s point about how big news legitimacy works at it’s height. People trust specific brands of news sources with a patina of objectivity. Of not filtering between information and audience. And how that’s been at various points more or less obviously a myth.

BurntCitrusHanson
Who Watches the Watchmen? You opened pandora’s box.

pzedQuis custodiet ipsos custodes? Hanson.

BurntCitrus – An argument for a gov. subsidized thing, like NPR or PBS, is that naturally, there isn’t as much of a demand… somewhat, yes, and people will pay (donate), but to have something of high quality, there might not be the readership/viewers needed to sustain it on the open market (which is tragic).

dr.awesome@BurntCitrus AHA! Let’s go there, hombre!

BurntCitrus – Uh oh.

pzed:goes for popcorn:

dr.awesome – What makes something information and something news? Some would say news is information that we consider to be relevant. Can that turn information that was boring yesterday into something that is interesting today? @BurntCitrus, I meant go there in a good way. As news consumers, we need to interrogate ourselves about this and then turn our attention to what is being shoveled at us.

BurntCitrus – Brand loyalty, is somehow tied to this question as well, I think.

pzed – I mean, aren’t the parties just brands with colors and animal mascots?

BurntCitrus – I think we think of them as such… though, I’m not sure that’s holding as much as they did. I think the political class thinks of it that way, but everyday voters… probably less so.
That’s why they needed a tea party, or a person with a cult of personality. Which gets too much in fascist territory for my taste.

pzed – Valid point. There isn’t one audience that uptakes any message.

dr.awesome – Right.

BurntCitrus – I hold little allegiance to “D” democrats… but if you ask me about the best band ever, I’ll defend that with vigor.
Back to media. My great sadness is that I have to tell students, repetitively, not to trust the History Channel.

pzed – When I was an undergraduate, Thomas Childers called it the “All Hitler, All the Time Channel”
Though that’s also hard to divorce from the long problems with documentary film as a genre going back to Nanook of the North.

BurntCitrus – They also now cover Hitler and aliens, I’m told.

pzed – Please tell me those are not two separate categories. Please please please. Because that crosses over into WWF. You don’t have a legitimacy problem if you don’t even pretend it’s not just entertainment. National Treasure and Stargate, now on the History Channel.

BurntCitrus – I think they do overlap, though I haven’t verified it myself.

pzed – Don’t trust the secondary sources. You need a viewing party.
Follow up question to the general consensus about the susceptibility of a 4th estate dependent on profit-based markets for survival: how do you divorce the two in our current situation?
The BBC model depends a lot on public trust of the government (vis a vis the market) to supply reliable information. So you see the problem with a super-NPR, then….
Or, at least the immediate problem. It could work with buy in from the vast majority of groups like elementary and secondary educators, local government (which people generally trust more than national), etc.

rsharp – Questions from the non-historian (i.e., I’m probably supposed to know these things, but I don’t); the talking-heads snippet above caught my attention.

  • Is more news (I guess you count by # of stories of # of pieces of information, not lines or minutes) watched or read?
  • Is there a difference in quality, in particular, are people more critical of one?
Personal bias: I read almost all of my news, and I think it lets me be more critical because it’s easy to stop, back up, question it, refer to other sources, come back to it, etc., whereas video streams on by and is gone. I have a hunch that the esteemed panel might share some of this bias.
Second – @dr.awesome your statement that “freedom cannot occur outside of community” – I read this as you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. It’s not too hard to accept that because of the clarity of the falsehood and the immediacy of the consequences. At first I was going to ask if you suggest similar penalties for fake news peddlers, but the oppressive downside quickly squashed that thought. News consumption is a slow burn: its truthiness is hard to assess and its consequences only pop up every other November.
So, what are the tools that the community can use to deal with it? (he asks while definitely thinking back to the earlier bit about open source).

pzed@rsharp brings up a good point about watched news v. read news. I have no idea which is the more used channel in the US, and how that’s changed over the years. Particularly when there are so many combined methods (i.e. an online version of a print newspaper with an article but a video segment at top. Which these days is a significant percentage of articles put out on the web versions of major papers). Someone has to have at least some survey data on this, right? Pew, perhaps? The Annenberg School?
:scribbles notes about future project ideas.

BurntCitrus – I don’t know if I want to distinguish solely on read news versus viewed news. I think we perhaps have to think about scripted news versus impromptu news (mostly talking heads).
We can even divide that further, between scripted news that is probed rigorously and that which is written on the fly, as it were. a scripted tv show/documentary, that is done with care and rigor, can be just as good of a source that is read—but in the age of YouTube and talking heads, that sort of rigor is less common. The best interviewers, still, are those that can on the fly cite sources, use stats, and are prepared to hold an interviewee acceptable for their words. It is possible to do impromptu well, but it holds the interviewer to a higher standard… just one reason I love Terry Gross on NPR, btw.

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Content marketing: Promotion money corrodes legitimacy.

Money
Money makes the web go ’round | Photo credit: Adam Butterick.

rsharp – Here’s another angle: pay-to-promote news.

pzed – Basically, “pay-to-share us”? Yeah. That’s referred to in the ad industry as “influencer marketing.”

BurntCitrus – The influencer example seems to speak more to the distribution problem. It seems that those media companies/news companies were using people like George Takei to solve some of their distribution problems.

pzed – News companies have basically started to take a clue from soft-drink and shoe companies. Get someone who lots of people already like to endorse your product.

BurntCitrus – It’s even more complicated than that. Distribution companies also pay for content. Even NPR, has to announce when doing stories about Facebook that FB pays them for content. And companies like Refinery29, mentioned in the article, will even produce content that promote products.
Also, side note: I hate the way the word “content” has come to mean something akin to “filler.”

pzed – Indeed. Though on the first point, sponsored content campaigns aren’t particularly new. Disney pays bloggers to push Disney World all the time (for example). Many small sites on the internet basically survive by sneaking in some sponsored content.

BurntCitrus – I’m not saying that’s new. It’s just not readily transparent.

pzed – It’s specifically designed to be as opaque as can be gotten away with short of a truth-in-advertising suit. So yeah. :throwing up in mouth:.

pzed – So, one question this overall discussion makes me think of…. How uncompromised by commerce is “pure enough” to sustain a viable and reliable fourth estate? Basically, if a) fake news has always existed to some degree and b) the current format of news distribution is particularly prone to its injection and the obfuscation of source, then what is an acceptable level of pollution?
Related: What do we do about it in the immediate term? Think, for the 2018 elections.
The question of educating the populace is the obvious long-term solution, but it’s also one that might take awhile, even in the best-case kind of agitprop campaign (think “this is your brain on drugs” level of coverage and financial support).

BurntCitrus – I think there is some benefit to the obfuscation of sources, especially “leakers”… we need space for that. The problem is that such a model requires that we trust the integrity and rigor of the newspaper/media company explicitly. If we don’t, the anonymity of it can but the trustworthiness of it at risk.
The simple solution: footnotes? Find sources willing to put their necks on the line?

pzed – You actually bring up a related question @BurntCitrus I was thinking of “source” as in “the source of this viral news story is actually a russian egg account posting in r/TheDonald” not as in “journalistic source.”
But you’re totally right, anonymous sources have also been particularly used and misused recently.

BurntCitrus – So, we can think about sources in terms of the content/creation as well as source in terms of distribution. That’s interesting!

pzed – Yup. You were thinking the former, I was the latter. But they’re both obviously relevant.

BurntCitrus – primary sources–>writer/producer/creator–>distributive sources. (Sorry, I really geek out on this stuff).

pzed – (Psst. Hey Louie! We know. That’s why I thought this might be an interesting chat to bring you in on.)
Though what’s part of the issue behind the current model is that some purported news stories don’t have any of the first part of your path or the second and third are the same person, and it’s really hard to tell. In well done ones, that is.

BurntCitrus – Hahaha! It all makes sense. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your question about immediate fixes… and that really is a hard one. Any thoughts?

pzed – Honestly, none that make me excited right now. A flagging / reporting system in social media would help, but doesn’t solve the anonymous sources problem. Plus, there’s the issue of how you tell whether an account was a) party to the fake news b) a duped intermediary and mostly blameless or c) an innocent’s account that got hacked and co-opted. Some kind of advertising blitz / public service announcement by a party seen generally as having integrity might work, though. ACLU might be too partisan. Maybe the Annenberg foundation, or a joint thing between MSNBC, CNN, Fox news (a modern-day analog to the creation of the Associated Press)? NPR doesn’t have the cash to put it on other outlets, and their audience is pretty self selected. Maybe somethign sponsored by the DHS would actually be the best. Frame it as national security (which it is), and it might be seen as less “anti-Trump” and more “stop disinformation campaigns by foreign governments.”
I was thinking a distribution pattern like TV + internet + billboards + buses + digital.

jamesisntstout – This debate gas been raging recently in my little corner of the world. Apparently cycling editors don’t really understand the concept of habeas corpus and get very upset when they slander someone without evidence and get sued.
I can’t help but think that the creeping increase in paid content has helped erode morality in this case.

pzed – That’s a good point @jamesisntstout editors do play a role here. Also, yeah, usually money != morality.

BurntCitrus – I think part of what were are looking at is maybe tied to a belief that no one has integrity. The partisanship has reached a fever pitch that even if there were some sort of group that were to come together, there still would be a massive amount of people who would see it as the “mainstream media.” Which has come to mean all media. PBS and AP (NPR?) might still be the closest to having their integrity in-check.
It needs to go deeper—education from the ground up.

pzed – Ok. Can’t disagree with either part of that statement. To repeat the conundrum, though… Education from the ground up takes time.
What do we do to make things less bad than they are now by November 2018? We have 11 months and change. [In a hypothetical world where this chat set national policy via some sort of sneaky Illuminati-related shadow council. Like how the elite media we so strive to emulate control the world.]

BurntCitrus – Concretely, I think what people generally need to do is inform themselves, and talk to their families and friends. The most effective change doesn’t come from an advertising blitz, but informed people talking to people in their networks and holding them responsible for racism, sexism, etc. I think what’s really missing for this entire conversation might be really locating agency and empowering people to do it themselves.

jamesisntstout – Yeah I think Holding people accountable for actions is key. Not challenging their identities but their actions. So, saying “that shit you said is racist” not “you’re racist” so they can’t deploy the “but I have friends of colour” argument.

pzed – Good, good. Actions are also much more easily dealt with systematically in something like this. So @jamesisntstout would you primarily focus on cultural change?

jamesisntstout – Appealing to supposedly shared norms works well.
But, then again, I thought fighting Nazis was a shared norm.

pzed – It was like the one thing we shared with those dirty Commies for 40% of the last century.
On the tech-companies-need-to-enforce-this side of things: Facebook is definitely looking more closely at ad buys, starting roughly two months ago (unsure on the exact date). Reviews for ads used to take ~1-2hrs. Now they take about a day. There seems to be no difference in time between articles with overtly political subjects (such as Tax Reform) and those that havee no political argument whatsoever (unless you consider cheesesteaks political, which, well, Philly. So sure.).
What this suggests, then, is that they’re potentially taking what used to be an automated / AI process and now having our hypothetical army of interns look at it.

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Ok, so now what?

Education
The long-term answer? Continuing education | Photo credit: Matthew Jackson.

pzed – Ok, to keep the (:checks web analytics data:) 3 readers we still have left at this point of the chat, I’d like everyone to wrap us up with the following: What’s your recommendation to improve the fake news situation by November 2018? This can be policy or an activist campaign, enacted by government, non-government, or corporate actors, and targeted at the sources of fake news, the distribution mechanisms (social media platforms), or the audience (ye olde US citizens).

bwerthrx – The solution to fake news is to tweet angrily at the Failing New York Times. Everyone knows this. Oh, and dismantling net neutrality.

pzed – Well, besides that. Because of course the failing @nytimes is the problem.

BurntCitrus – In the discussion, we’ve talked about education changes. It was sort of implied that could only be a long-term strategy. I don’t think it has to be. I think a massive campaign, meant to provide concrete resources, lesson plans, documents, facts, primary sources, etc, could do a lot of good. Assignments could require participants to reach out to family, friends, social networks. In essence, we could use those same networks that are spreading disinformation to educate. If KONY and the Ice Bucket Challenge could do it…I’m an optimist, of course. I also think we need some optimism in the world.

pzed – True @BurntCitrus time is to some degree a function of resources (manpower, cold hard cash, social capital). Also, yeah, we probably need a dose of optimism every once in awhile.
I’m going to argue in favor of a blitz ad campaign, called “where’s the evidence?” Or “don’t be a sucker” or “trust the facts, not the story.” Something along those lines. Basically, if you could get enough backing for something that is hard to attack, you might be able to get both funding and exposure from groups who feel their influence is in danger (Facebook, traditional news outlets, etc) to help spread a public education campaign that gets voters to question conspiracy theories.
Potential ad spots:

  • Thinking is patriotic
  • This is your brain on fake news
  • Make America great again (contrasting stills of people reading the paper and watching cable news, town hall meetings and Twitter feeds, candidate debates and talking heads screaming, et al).
Target audience: high schools, colleges, buses, airports, subways, mass restaurants, etc. It would be expensive as hell, yes. But we’re kind of out of time for the cheap methods of political re-engagement.

rsharp – OK, so some thoughts on a solution. “The solution to fake news is to tweet angrily at the Failing New York Times. Everyone knows this. Oh, and dismantling net neutrality.” – I like it, @bwerthrx; fight fire with fire.
We’ve agreed that sources (of content and distribution) will need to remain open to uncertified/uncredentialed: anonymous sources can be really helpful, think Watergate, or really bad, think Wikileaks (information asymmetry – we’ll share with you first, GOP). We want to leave room for these sources, but that means we will be leaving room for abuse as well.
So how do you combat that abuse? Long term: education. People have to be curious and critical of what they’re told. When Wikileaks breaks a story on emails, you should be thinking cui bono?
What does that mean short term? November 2018 is closer that it feels, and there’s an even more immediate threat: Trump’s FUD campaign against Mueller. Proposal: fight fire with fire. We cannot shame Trump into different behavior, so we must the behavior we know he’ll continue. If done right (somebody light up the sky with the Harry Reid signal, please) greater confusion around the campaign might just lead to more attention and a greater need to sort things out: to weigh evidence favoring conflicting story lines rather than accept the only one available.
And technology cannot save us. It may have a piece to play, e.g., enabling reputation management and making it easier to discover the sources and evolution of a story, Facebook AI doesn’t end fake news. It’s not that we’re waiting for a scientific breakthrough that makes it possible because fake news does not have to be false in order to cause harm (Clinton did use an email server she shouldn’t have, but it was the framing of the story that caused the political damage). AI cannot think for us, and thinking for ourselves is the only way out of this mess.

bwerthrx – So, does this problem, like so many others, boil down to, “we need better public education”?

pzed – Usually. The problem is that’s expensive and takes awhile. People don’t like to pay for tomorrow (c.f. most of the last few centuries).

BurntCitrus – I still don’t think education has to take awhile—but I’m a fan of the teach-ins of yore. We’re in a digital era, crowd source lesson plans/resources and share it.

pzed – I like teach-ins @BurntCitrus, though I think that they’re probably most effective for trying to encourage thinking about specific issues (fake news, for instance). To me, the susceptibility of our society to less-than-reputable sources is a much broader lack of training, encouragement, or experience with critical thinking. Not just the ability to question an argument based on any number of factors (logical coherence, assumptions, evidence, and source) but ingraining that to the point where it’s basically a reflex action.

BurntCitrus – Perhaps, we can think of education as both institutional (the more longer term), but also as part of a community. I believe critical thinking can exist outside of schools and universities. I think to be able to sustain critical thinking, in the long term, we need to look outside schools because, let’s face it, most people graduate high school and never look back. Fewer people go to college, and then enter the professional world. If we want people to maintain an engagement in critical thinking, it would be helpful for us to think of it as something that must happen outside of schools and universities. Obviously, we want to strengthen those too, hence why strong public education and universities should be a longer-term goal, but education should exist outside of that too. In an age of YouTube videos, it should be possible.

pzed – I’m not suggesting that formalized education is the only way to develop critical thinking; I’m pessimistic that something so fundamental can be changed in 11 months.

bwerthrx – Short term, I don’t have much hope. I think that people need to be instilled with a sense of curiosity and skepticism at a reasonably young age to create​ a fully functional and rational voter or news consumer. My intuition is that this is a problem that must be solved in k-12 education and, if done properly, then even folks who do not go on to college will have the basic toolkit for decifering information.
I also have some suspicions about religious institutions serving as safe places for bad ideas that are immune from scrutiny due to respect for people’s “faith.” I think that this has a corrosive effect on discourse when we have free spaces where bad ideas cannot be criticised and don’t have to be defended. This gives people a sense that they have the right to believe whatever they want regardless of evidence and sets people up to be suspicious of science and view data as a weapon to be used against them personally or culturally.

dr.awesome – Mounting any significant counter to fake news reportage that will have some impact in the mid-term election cycle of November 2018 is both daunting and unrealistic. There needs to be a two pronged approach for the long term.
First, let’s consider governmental policy directed at the distribution mechanisms (e.g. social media platforms). When it comes to governmental actors whose bailiwick is regulation of news sources and distribution mechanism, they are historically loath to rile the president. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is notorious for rolling over and playing dead for the corporatist media and this has not changed in the 21st century reign of corporatist social media. The Court has also ruled in favor. Indeed, the momentum for generating any policy shocks–meaning non-incremental policy change—to the media news production process is squarely with the executive office right now. My policy recommendation is to engage a court campaign rollback of the aggregation of media companies. This is no mean feat and only possible when the US body politic loses its stomach for digesting and using news that render sub-optimal political decisions and a moribund public square.
Second, let us consider the audience/consumers of political news, both real and fake. Providing robust K-12 public education on civics and as well as convincing homo politicus into assuming their responsibilities along with their rights as consumers of news in the public realm is an essential step. For the short term, a nongovernmental activist campaign could take on community education of fake news triage where fellow denizens teach each other how to spot certain “tells” ferret out fake news. Web developer Zach Bailey, who engages with web design issues and information/content from platforms all over the globe, says there are a few tells. For example, if a news story lacks connective words, or if there is a typo in the text, then the news story/message is not to be trusted. However, Bailey cautions us that when we consumers are vetting political discussions, we must pay very close attention. If the story involves reputation-makers (those whose modus is obfuscation and misdirection), one cannot keep that delivery honest.
In higher education, University of Washington Information School (iSchool) assistant professor Jevon West and his colleague biology assistant professor Carl Bergstrom have developed a course: “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data.” The purpose is to equip denizens with a methodological and critical analytical arsenal for combatting a) the reputation-makers in the news production and distribution process and b) news consumers with limited time and interest. The course has garnered international attention and initial reports show their methodology and pedagogy are working.
Nonetheless, the “each one-reach one” approach allows the state to abdicate its responsibility of upholding the First Amendment and the protection of public discourse and the public square. I am in a quandary for providing a recommendation for the keeping the state honest and engaged in bolstering the 4th Estate. This IS the time when the Bear eats us. Sigh.

pzed – Well, that’s a dark way to wrap up, but also kinda hard to disagree with. All of the proposals here should probably be best understood not so much as ways to fix the problem but suggestions to try and make things a little less bad by this time next year. Well, maybe @BurntCitrus is optimistic enough.
Man, would I love to see the press treated like a public utility (which is essentially what you describe – you are treating AOL/Time Warner/CNN like Ma Bell). Is it any wonder that news and entertainment are being conflated when the same companies are providing them? Wouldn’t you expect some cross-pollination between, say, Time Warner and CNN or Fox News and 20th Century Fox? or Xbox and MSNBC? Also, “Calling Bullshit” is a really good heuristic. Bravo.

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So, there you have it, folks. Your handy guide to solving fake news in just 11 months! Feel free to deploy as you see fit, and watch a fact-based reality return to America!
Some assembly required. Results may vary. Principally Uncertain, LLC not responsible for any side effects, which may include nausea, tweet storms, and re-evaluation of one’s role in life.

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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