Fake News Trumps True News

Boston Globe fake news page.
The Boston Globe publishes fake news as an editiorial-page spoof in April, 2016.

By Casey Bukro

Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.

This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.

News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.

Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?

“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.

“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”

But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.

People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

A sophisticated consumer carefully examines the veracity of news reports and the reliability of their sources. But how much can a reader or viewer verify? Sharing the news on social networks heightens the concern.

“People want to feel good about what they think about the world,” explains Spinner. This might seem benign, but it brings impact to specious reports.

“Confirmation bias confirms what you think, and you look for information that confirms what you think about the world,” says Spinner.

Don’t expect the younger generation to act any better. According to a Stanford study, preteens and teenagers don’t know when news is fake. “They’re often clueless about evaluating the accuracy and trustworthiness of what they find” on social media, writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. They absorb social media reports without considering the source.

Craig Silverman, who covers hoaxes and online misinformation for Buzzfeed, reports that the top fake election news stories generated more reactions or comments on Facebook than top election stories from mainstream media.

Silverman compared the top 20 legitimate news stories with the top 20 fake news stories in three three-month periods, beginning in February 2016 and ending on election day. In the beginning, mainstream news beat the fake news. But by election day, fake news got more attention and reaction. Of the 20 fake news stories, he writes, “all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter were criticized for influencing the outcome of the election by giving a platform to fake and misleading news stories, and by profiting from paid advertising associated with those stories. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it’s “crazy” to say fake news determined the election, but vowed to make changes.

Responsibility for correcting or controlling false reports lies with media and internet companies, says Edward Lee, professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, appearing on the “Chicago Tonight” broadcast.

A sophisticated consumer carefully examines the veracity of news reports and the reliability of their sources. But how much can a reader or viewer verify?

On National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program, Silverman admits that his analysis is based on data from Facebook.

Moderator Brooke Gladstone notes that Facebook last summer tweaked its algorithm to make it more responsive to people’s personal networks and their personal interests, and that heightened engagement with fake news. So is that a media problem, a Facebook problem or a human problem? she asks.

“Maybe it’ll sound like a copout but I’m gonna check all three boxes,” answers Silverman, but adds that he sees no evidence that fake news gave Trump the election.

Facebook and Google are taking steps to stop ads from appearing on fake news sites. A CNN online story by Ivana Kottasova reports the two tech giants no longer will allow fake news sites to use their ad-selling services.

The Washington Post suggests that fake news stories were a problem throughout the presidential campaign. “We’re not talking about reports that are merely flawed or thinly sourced,” wrote Callum Borchers. “We’re talking about stuff that is completely made up.”

Bochers cites examples of bogus stories: Donald Trump is dead, Hillary Clinton will be indicted, a postal worker in Ohio is destroying absentee ballots cast for Trump, President Obama is thinking about fleeing the country if Trump wins and an FBI agent investigating Clinton died under suspicious circumstances.

As for sources, Borchers describes one, a fake news site named WorldPoliticus. It’s one of more than 100 pro-Trump websites originating from one town in Macedonia.

Taking an anti-establishment stance with fake news and innuendo can make you rich, according to another Washington Post article by Terrence McCoy. He describes how two former unemployed restaurant workers created LibertyWritersNews, a website that got 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone.

“We’re the new yellow journalists,” says one of them, Paris Wade. He caters to an audience that “does not trust mainstream media,” hooking it with short messages of violence, chaos and aggressive wording, “what people are attracted to.”

The New York Times describes “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” It traces how a false report about protesters being bused to demonstrations against president-elect Trump fueled a nationwide conspiracy theory.

Another Times article reposts “a barrage of false articles on social media and fake news sites” saying a Washington pizzaria was a front for a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.

The Columbia Journalism Review gave an election postmortem citing reporting as the root of “journalism’s fundamental failure.”  Later it produced a massive oral history of campaign coverage in partnership with The Guardian US. The Trump election, says the report, “upended much of America — not least the establishment press.”

Finally there’s this comment from Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist: “The worst of the media is on full display, as if someone had set out to show just how terrible we hacks could look in these last moments before Election Day.

“To be sure, some great journalism has been published over the course of the campaign. But it largely had been drowned out by the unsavory.”

A Chicago writer recently told me that the staff of his newspaper was gathered together to talk about how to cover the Trump presidency. There was a sense of a new beginning and a need for reassessment of strategy, by going back to the basics of fairness, accuracy, objectivity and neutrality. It is a time for soul-searching.

This sense of a new beginning also is reflected in an open letter to Trump from the National Press Club, co-signed by 28 other American media organizations.

“We, a group of diverse journalism associations representing thousands of journalists from the nation’s capital to every corner of the country, begin this letter on a hopeful note,” said the letter written by Thomas Burr, National Press Club president. “Your administration is a blank slate and we are eager to work with you to perpetuate one of this nation’s great strengths: our freedom of the press.”

The letter calls for continuation of presidential press pools covering “all of the president’s movements,” regular press conferences and open access to key decision-makers “for the sake of transparency.” Rapid response to Freedom of Information requests also was mentioned, “as a way to show the American people, and the world, that the republic belongs to the people.”

“A great America depends on having sunlight on its leaders,” the letter concluded.

It sets a conciliatory and hopeful tone. Possibly Trump will respond in kind. In a meeting with the New York Times, he called the newspaper a “great American jewel,” adding, “I hope we can all get alone.”

This is a step back from his media-bashing statements during the election campaign. All involved appear to be willing to hit the reset button.

It’s a good time to be a journalist. There’s more than enough real news to go around.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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