Is fake the new real? Is there anything we can do about the creation and dissemination of fake news?
Is there actually a problem that needs to be addressed?
These are the kinds of questions that were recently addressed during a talk at the TNW 2019 Conference. Chaired by Georgia Frances King (Ideas Editor at Quartz), Dhruv Ghulati (Co-Founder and CEO of Factmats) and Jonathan Morgan (Founder and CEO of New Knowledge) joined her to discuss the current state of things and what could be done about it.
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What is fake news?
In their talk at Venue 2 of the TNW 2019 Conference, Georgia Frances King, Dhruv Ghulati and Jonathan Morgan discussed fake news and how we could deal with it.
They were all united in the fact that we appear to be in a fake news pickle at present. Technology, like the internet, has revolutionized our world but not entirely for the better.
One area we appear to have a problem is the way information is shared on the net. So-called fake news is rampant and seems to be polarizing opinion on many issues, especially politically.
Bubbles of thought have formed on the internet where any dissenting voices contrary to the bubble's beliefs are either shouted down or completely silenced. Social media platforms, like Facebook, have been particularly bad for this.
But what is fake news really?
One definition, given by Wikipedia, is as follows: -
"Fake news or junk news or pseudo-news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media."
But the term seems to be increasingly applied to information that runs contrary to another group's opinion. It doesn't necessarily mean the information is factually incorrect, believes Jonathan Morgan.
Rather than being factually inaccurate, it can be applied to articles and other information that is framed in a certain way to support a particular opinion.
Another issue is that the term gained popularity in 2016 and was originally applied to large media outlets, like CNN or MSNBC. It has since begun to be applied more generally and has become a nebulous term.
It has become increasingly difficult to know what sources of information to trust. Especially when the subject is political in nature.
But this is nothing new. Misinformation and 'spin' are as old as the printed word.
Traditional media outlets, like newspapers, have long moved away from being whistleblowers to political propagandists and 'kingmakers' for decades. Perhaps this is nothing to worry about; should we, instead, look to ourselves to sort the 'wheat from the chaff' of information?
But "how did we get here?", asked Georgia Frances King.
How did the apparent Fake News epidemic start?
Assuming the notion of fake news is true, how did we get here? Is it something new or a consequence of the very technology that helps us access and use the internet?
Jonathan Morgan believes it is because the internet today was built on a false premise; at the very least the modern social internet.
Most people have historically considered it a form of a public square where all thoughts and opinions can be shared. The idea was that everyone had their own agency, voice and were all spontaneously having conversations.
But, Jonathan Morgan, believes, this was never true. The internet from the off has enabled us to manufacture a crowd far more easily than in real life.
It can be used to build up a following very quickly and used to influence real-life events. This is a lot harder in the real world.
Dhruv Ghulati broadly agreed but added that the way businesses make money online is to blame. He directly put the blame on the current ad-based model for making a living on the net.
By his estimation, the rise of click-bait in journalism with its need for immediate and continuous creation of articles often leads to journalistic standards being cast-aside. This has been the main problem and it incentivized fake news creation and dissemination.
Good quality information, on the other hand, is not always monetized or incentivized. The truth and only the truth doesn't seem to pay.
Another problem is that information distribution has become weaponized. Connections between like-minded people can now be built with no restriction on geographic boundaries.
What can be done about Fake News?
Given we appear to have a problem, what can actually be done about it, asked Georgia. Do we need a new internet?
In fact, many YouTube commentators and prominent figures in the tech industry believe this might be the only way forward.
Dhruv Ghulati believes this might be a little drastic. It might be better to just change the way we monetize content on the internet.
Various models currently exist, from the traditional ad-based model to asking for subscriptions or donations from consumers.
The Guardian, for example, has been experimenting with a donation based subscription for several years.
Perhaps what is needed is to create a method of nudging ads on good quality content only? But this would need a way to define 'good' quality, measure it and track it.
Who would define what is 'good' and 'bad/fake' content?
Distribution of information is another issue that needs to be addressed, the panel discussed. It might be a good idea to inform consumers why they are being shown a piece of information over other alternatives.
Perhaps a new unbiased arbitrator layer to the internet is needed? But, once again, who would be responsible for it, define it and administer it?
Who defines what is fake news?
Should it be the publisher? Some government oversight body? The platforms or creators? Maybe some AI system should be established to automate the process?
Dhruv Ghulati described how at a recent Reuters Conference, over 75% of respondents believed the onus should be on the publishers.
Jonathan Morgan also noted that encryption and anonymity is an issue. It is very easy to not be accountable for misinformation that is spread on the net.
Should this be stripped away from content creators and distributors? Would this actually help?
In the end, it might just be a matter of letting the market decide. After all, we often choose as consumers which publications we go to put context or opinion to some piece of information.
If a publisher has become renowned for creating 'fake news', we should simply stop using their service. After all money talks.
Perhaps, like many things in life, we each individually need to learn how to think critically. But this is easier said than done.