Fake news threatens democracy and might have tipped the scales in the 2016 US presidential election.
Fortunately, many organizations, large and small, are making headway against fake news. Will it be enough? Please keep reading.
Defining “fake news”
In the media today, we see two definitions for “fake news”:
- The original definition of “fake news,” still in use by the mainstream media (MSM) and academic elites, is the deliberate spread of misinformation published in traditional news media or social media to mislead in order to further some objective, such as influencing an election or financial gain (e.g., Web advertising revenue). Of particular note, the US and UK intelligence services believe that Russia-sponsored fake news in recent years is attempting to undermine democracies and influence elections. (See this and this.) However, the greater percentage of fake news comes from domestic sources.
- Donald Trump and his supporters have co-opted the term fake news to refer to unfavorable coverage of Trump’s presidency by the MSM. Often, when asked to comment on a report from the MSM, Trump will dismiss the report with the two words “fake news.” His supporters on both conventional and social media also dismiss unfavorable news as fake news, sometimes without regard to the truthfulness of the reporting. What Trump is essentially doing is broadening the term fake news to also include biased news. Recently, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns dozens of local TV stations in rural communities and which is clearly pro-Trump, forced its local news stations to read a statement about fighting the “fake news” coming from the national (i.e., MSM) media.
For this article, I will use the term fake news to refer to both deliberately misleading news (definition #1 above) and partisan-slanted news (definition #2: biased news), whether pro-Trump, anti-Trump or otherwise.
Many (most?) major news outlets are biased either for or against Trump. Liberals believe Fox News is biased for Trump, while Conservatives believe CNN and the rest of the MSM is biased against Trump.
Different news organizations vary in how biased they are. Some mainstream news outlets are significantly slanted against Trump. Others try their best to be truly fair and balanced, but occasionally allow their partisan preferences to come out. The bias is often unintentional.
Some techniques used by biased news are:
- Promoting stories that support the news organization’s political agenda. Critics call out CNN for excessive time spent on stories that reflect negatively on Trump negativity, such as its multi-day lead story about Trump and porn star Stormy Daniels. Vanity Fair claims that Trump and Fox News collaborate on reporting strategies.
- Avoiding stories that go against the news organization’s political agenda. For example, Fox News avoided the Rob Porter scandal, whereas CNN deliberately did not report on the Susan Rice unmasking story except for some time devoted to refuting the allegations.
- Only showing one side of a story. In the Fox News story, Trump slams NY Times’ Haberman as ‘Hillary flunky’; rips paper over Russia, lawyers story, Fox only presents Trump’s view of the article. It failed to list the reasons why the New York Times (and the rest of the MSM) believe the story to be accurate and relevant. Note: ten days later, multiple news reports substantiated the original Haberman article, such as this report.
- Using loaded words to convey emotion. The following headline on the cnn.com homepage – The 64 most outrageous lines from Donald Trump’s untethered Pennsylvania speech – uses the loaded word “untethered” without indication of the article being an opinion piece. This word choice creates an association between Trump and the word “untethered” which might be the only takeaway from readers who only read the headline (which is most readers).
- Slanted and inaccurate headlines. Even when avoiding emotionally-loaded words, a favorite trick of biased news editors is to write an article headline that promotes the organization’s partisan narrative even if the body of the article is relatively even-handed. Fox News did this during the Roy Moore campaign, then revised the headline later, but only after most of their readers had already mentally processed the headline.
Did fake news affect the outcome of the 2016 election?
Researchers at Ohio State University say, possibly, yes.
They claim to be the first study to scientifically isolate the effect of fake news from other factors in voter decision-making. The results shows mathematical/statistical justification to claim that more than enough voters from Wisconsin and Michigan were swayed from Clinton (either by not voting or voting for someone else) because of belief in a deliberately false news story.
These results undoubtedly will be challenged by both other academics and various people in politics; for example, an earlier study by Stanford University came to the opposite conclusion. However, given the thin victory margin in those two decisive states, even a small impact on voting behavior against Clinton could have made the difference in 2016.
Why fake news threatens democracy
Any form of misleading information that poses as truth is dangerous to a healthy democracy. The citizens cannot make good decisions to reflect their interests and values if their minds have been tricked by false or misleading information posing as news.
Biased news sometimes deliberately undermines American foundation institutions, such as recent unsubstantiated claims of millions of fraudulent voters, attacks on the FBI and on the media (see above). Doubt about these foundation institutions is a significant contributing factor in why many Americans have grown skeptical about democracy itself, even before Trump. (See this.)
Biased news, along with social media echo chambers, have produced the most divided electorate of modern times. The Pew Research Center has been tracking the spectrum of political views over time and finds an alarming trend – the disappearance of the political center:
Huge challenges to fight fake news successfully
A recent MIT study shows how difficult it will be to eradicate fake news. Key takeaways:
- False news propagates faster, deeper, and more broadly than truth
- False political news propagates at a greater rate than for most other types of false news
- Humans are more likely to be the agents who spread false news, not bots
Basically, the primary reason that false news is difficult to stop is human nature. Many people believe what they read without checking (probably because the article reinforces what they would like to believe is true) and quickly forward to their network of like-minded friends who also believe without attempting to verify.
The fight against fake news
On March 20, 2018, Google announced the $300 million multi-faceted Google News Initiative with the dual goals of combating Fake News and elevating quality journalism. Google has a financial incentive to promote quality news: a large percentage of Web search requests (and therefore ad revenue) is for breaking news; hundreds of millions use the Google News aggregation service; Google pays $12 billion per year to news partners; and since 2016 there has been great public outcry for technology companies to take responsibility.
For fake news, Google is partnering with the Harvard Kennedy School’s First Draft to create a Disinfo Lab, which will attempt to identify false news during critical breaking news situations. With headquarters at ground-zero for fake news in Ukraine, its goal is to fight against “fake news, propaganda and state-sponsored disinformation … In the connected world of 24-hour media, social media, rolling news, and ubiquitous smartphones.”
Google has countless partnerships with the news industry, journalism nonprofits and academic institutions to elevate journalism. Google has built and is building new tools to prevent malicious actors from gaming its search algorithms to spread disinformation. Google’s nonprofit arm will spend $10 million to help American teenagers recognize false news. Google also will take on “synthetic media” (photos and videos that are manipulated using artificial intelligence software) and “deepfakes” (ultrarealistic fake videos that swap one face onto another).
Google’s YouTube is trying to tackle the problem of viral misinformation spread by conspiracy theory videos posted on its platform. YouTube’s algorithm for suggestions of related videos is designed in part to keep users on its website, which is likely to suggest other trending conspiracy videos supporting similar political views. YouTube’s recently announced strategy of leveraging Wikipedia to identify misinformation videos has received some criticism.
With all of recent news about Cambridge Analytica and others scraping most Facebook users’ private data, many people did not notice that Facebook recently announced and changed their platform in a major way in yet another attempt to battle fake news.
This is actually (at least) Facebook’s third announcement and platform change about fake news in the past eighteen months. First, in 2016, Facebook partnered with fact-checking sites to display a red “disputed” icon whenever an article was flagged as untrustworthy by at least two fact-checking partners. Unfortunately, that approach did not affect the spread of fake news (in fact, the red flags may have encouraged propagation rather than discourage), so it was abandoned in December 2017.
In early 2018, just two months ago, Facebook tried to enlist its own users to identify fake versus real news. However, that also didn’t work.
Facebook’s third and most recent attempt combines providing publisher information on news articles, the use of artificial intelligence, tweaks to the News Feed algorithms and source information on political ads.
Starting just in the past couple of weeks, news article in your Facebook feed will show an “i” icon near the headline. When you click the “i” icon, an overlay box appears that gives you a quick Wikipedia blurb about the publication, some more articles from that publication, and the list of people on your friends list who shared that article. With this approach, Facebook is not attempting to identify fake versus real news, but instead providing users with a way to figure out for themselves whether the article’s publisher is likely to be truthful. Given the MIT report, mentioned earlier, on how humans propagate fake news more than bots, this approach is unlikely to stop fake news by itself. Various people immediately doubted whether this approach would work.
Since the 2016 Brexit and US presidential elections, Facebook has developed artificial intelligence tools to find accounts spreading misinformation. Before the 2017 German elections, the company partnered with the German government to fight fake news with some success, including the removal of removed about 10,000 fake accounts. Despite the partial success for AI in Germany, some people are skeptical about AI conquering fake news.
A third prong of the effort is to tweak the feed algorithm to show more relationship-related content than news. Zuckerberg: “So this is another shift we’ve made in News Feed and our systems this year. We’re prioritizing showing more content from your friends and family first, so that way you’ll be more likely to have interactions that are meaningful to you and that more of the time you’re spending is building those relationships.”
Starting Spring 2018, to stop fake political advertising, Facebook will show who is paying for all political and issue ads, and will require political or issue advertisers to verify their identity and location.
The European Union recently published the results from the High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, which has a particular interest in safeguarding the democratic political process. The EU bought in experts from many disciplines together to tackle the problem of fake news.
The EU discovered that two of their goals were in direct conflict: fighting fake news versus protecting freedom of speech.
Among the recommendations:
- Abandonment of the term “fake news”; instead, they recommend the term “disinformation,” which they feel is better at conveying the complexity of the challenge.
- Financial support for independent news media, fact- and source-checking, and media and information literacy, with an emphasis on independent initiatives, free from potential interference from public authorities or from technology companies who might be tempted to use such projects as public relations exercises.
- Calls for major technology companies to provide data that would allow the independent assessment of efforts like Google’s fact-check tags, Facebook’s use of fact-checks as Related Articles or the downgrading of disinformation in the News Feed.
- Calls for public authorities at all EU levels to share data promptly and efficiently when it is requested by trustworthy fact-checking organisations.
- The creation of a network of Research Centers focused on studying disinformation across the EU.
- Collaboration going forward among all relevant stakeholders, with a structured process that will expose anyone not taking their responsibilities seriously.
Fact-checking: PolitiFact, FactCheck, etc.
To help readers discriminate true news from falsehood, various non-partisan fact-checking organizations and initiatives have arisen in recent years. Rigorous fact checks are now conducted by more than 100 active sites, according to the Duke University Reporter’s Lab. They collectively produce many thousands of fact-checks a year, examining claims around urban legends, politics, health, and the media itself.
Within the US, some leading non-partisan fact-checking organizations are Politifact, Factcheck.org, the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker, OpenSecrets, Sunlight Foundation and Snopes.com.
The International Fact-Checking Network is a unit of the Poynter Institute dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. Launched in 2015, there are now more than 100 fact-checking projects active in approximately 40 countries. The IFCN promotes best practices and facilitates communication within the field.
Removing bias – AllSides, The Knife Media, Media Bias/Fact Check
AllSides takes great effort to provide a balanced version of the news.
AllSides claims there is no such thing as unbiased journalism. All journalism has a point of view. However, it is possible to determine the midpoint on the liberal/conservative spectrum as the point where there is balanced perspective. AllSides uses multiple techniques in combination (blind surveys, third-party data, community feedback and bias ratings on its community contributors) to determine the bias of different news sources, and then places these sources on the spectrum from liberal to conservative, with the relative midpoint representing the “balanced” perspective.
AllSides attempts to cover today’s news on its homepage stripped of bias. They display the bias of hundreds of news organizations on this page.
If you want news without bias – in other words, just the facts – The Knife Media might deliver what you seek. The Knife Media performs two primary purposes:
- It presents today’s news stories stripped of bias and speculation
- They rate how factual was the coverage of particular news stories from leading news outlets
When The Knife Media evaluates a story for bias, they look for the following:
- Spin – the use of vague, dramatic or sensational language
- Slant – when you’re told only part of the story, with cherry-picked information that supports a particular viewpoint
- Logic – whether conclusions are backed up with data and based on valid reasoning. Follow this link for examples of faulty logic in stories about the Trump/Russia investigation. The first three are critical of the MSM. The remainder are critical of pro-Trump media.
- Distorted headlines
- Factual errors
- Close-minded beliefs or prejudice
An example of how The Knife Media rates the reporting of major news outlets can be found here: The Mueller indictments: How the media keeps a biased narrative alive and well. For this particular story, The Knife Media rated the integrity of the coverage of various news outlets as follows: BBC 63%, Breitbart 38%, New York Times 35%, AP 27%.
Media Bias/Fact Check claims to be the most comprehensive media bias resource on the Internet with bias judgments on over 2300 media sources. All bias judgments are made by the site’s contributors (who are committed to trustworthiness), with user feedback as a check on staff errors. Thus, they depend on proving themselves to trustworthy, similar to the fact-checking organizations. In addition to bias checking, MBFC provides original articles on media bias and breaking news stories.
The staff rates bias using these criteria:
- Biased Wording/Headlines – Does the source use loaded words to convey emotion to sway the reader? Do headlines match the story?
- Factual/Sourcing – Does the source report factually and back up claims with well sourced evidence?
- Story Choices – Does the source report news from both sides or do they only publish one side?
- Political Affiliation – How strongly does the source endorse a particular political ideology?
Among the things that MBFC looks at: bias by omission, bias by labeling, bias by placement, selection of sources, spin, story selection, confirmation bias, connotation and loaded language.
A website named AllGeneralizationsAreFalse.com publishes a media bias chart:
Universities: Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Santa Clara, etc.
Santa Clara University’s Trust Project has partnered with 75 news organizations and leading Internet technology companies to help people easily assess the quality and reliability of journalism and show what type of information people are reading – news, opinion, analysis or advertising. Google, Facebook, Bing, and Twitter and leading media companies representing dozens of news sites have begun to (or agreed to) display Trust Indicators, which provide clarity on the organizations’ ethics and other standards, the journalists’ backgrounds, and how they do their work. Each indicator is signaled in the article and site code, providing the first standardized technical language for platforms to learn more from news sites about the quality and expertise behind journalists’ work.
Many other fake news initiatives have started in American universities, many receiving funding from the Knight Prototype Fund, which awarded $1M to 20 projects aimed at fighting fake news and/or improving the quality of information. The full list of the projects supported by the Knight Prototype Fund is available here.
NewsGuard – fake news startup by media heavyweights
In March 2018, two media veterans, Steve Brill (founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV) and Gordon Crovitz (former publisher of the WSJ), announced a new start-up, NewsGuard, whose mission is to be a commercially viable company fighting fake news.
NewsGuard will use both human beings and artificial intelligence to review the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the U.S. The platform will deliver color-coded ratings, green, yellow, or red, which will signal whether a website is trying to get it right or instead has a hidden agenda or knowingly publishes falsehoods or propaganda. The site also will provide “Nutrition Label” write-ups of each of the sources to supplement the color-coded ratings.
Advertisers are increasingly cutting their marketing budgets across news sites, with brand safety being a major concern. If a brand’s social media ad appears next to controversial content of any kind, its reputation can be badly damaged in seconds.
A key part of NewsGuard’s business model is to license ‘white lists’ of news sites to advertising companies and departments so those advertisers can target only legitimate publishers, thereby protecting their brand reputations.
How much real progress are we making?
In spite of the mountain of effort listed above, fake news, whether it’s deliberate misinformation or simply biased reporting, is alive and well. It is an arms race between selfish forces who benefit from disinformation and the warriors for the truth who want an correctly informed electorate casting ballots in democratic elections. Fake news got a big head start in arms race, but there is reason for hope in that we will soon see progress against at least deliberate misinformation. Biased news is likely going to be a more difficult nut to crack.
About the author
Jon Ferraiolo is the author of Holy War for True Democracy and the founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Guardians. He has advanced ALS which has resulted in near-paralysis of his arms and hands. As a result, he wrote this article, authored the book and launched the nonprofit using only his eyes.