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What can we do about fake news that would not diminish real news?

What can we do about fake news that would not diminish real news?

by Denyse O'Leary | January 12, 2017

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First, what is news? A working definition might be: timely new information that matters to us because we believe it is accurate.

In Parts I and II, we saw that, while there is fake news out there, most claims and counterclaims lead into murky depths that we need not plumb in order to draw reasonable conclusions. With practice, most of us can distinguish fake news (whether rumour, hoax, or disinformation) in media with which we are familiar. At any rate, Trump’s unexpected win in the US election was principally due to underestimation by media and undersampling by pollsters of the groups most affected: It was missed real news, not fake news.

Still, many lament the lack of control over internet-based news by government and big social media companies: In that vein, Aspen Institute’s CEO Walter Isaacson blasts the internet in general at Pulse:

This has poisoned civil discourse, enabled hacking, permitted cyberbullying, and made email a risk. Its inherent lack of security has allowed Russian actors to screw with our democratic process.

Best-selling novelist Bret Easton Ellis complains

Today you can make an album, record a podcast or edit a movie for almost nothing… In some ways there should be gatekeepers and there aren’t anymore, so there is just so much available to us and so much of it is bad! More.

At Mashable, Heather Dockray insists,

It's impossible to overstate the role fake news — or propaganda, as seems increasingly likely — had in this election.

Yes, it is possible to overstate it. Knowing which likely voters watched Duck Dynasty, not an important source of fake news, proved in retrospect most informative in predicting the election outcome.

In any event, according to one poll, Americans are more likely to blame themselves for believing fake news than to blame anyone else (24%). Only 14% want government to act and only 9-10% want internet media companies do to so. One senses that future poll results will land in the same region.

Concern about current censorship proposals is legitimate, according to American journalist Frank Miniter writing at Forbes. Many figures in government and media have struggled for years against the clear intent of the US First Amendment to restrict speech as little as possible.

As he notes, the mainstream media’s struggle against the vast democratization of news has become desperate. Once considered, rightly or wrongly, kingmakers (queenmakers?) they failed this time. Turning Ellis’s lament around, writer and commentator Arthur Schaper concludes,

… the media as we know it is dead, and that a new media, a consortium of average joes who can report the news bigger, faster, stronger and better have discredited and marginalized the press, radio, and TV which had lulled us into complacency. More.

Whether the “average joes” do a better or worse job, they have simply inherited the job.

Looking beyond the United States, many governments want control of that raging tsunami of information, the internet—the globalist’s global nightmare, where everyone else is equally global. China, in last place on Freedom House’s internet freedom list, stepped up its campaign this past summer: “Facebook is launching a rumor-busting censorship system, but it’s a four full years behind Weibo,” Sina Tech (Chinese business news) announced recently.

But what does rumour or fake news mean in a country where the mass starvation deaths of tens of millions of people between 1959 and 1961 must still be described as “Three Years of Natural Disasters” or the “Three Years of Difficulties”? There is no true news or fake news; just news that is allowed or not allowed.

Most nations have resolved instead to tackle the social media companies, especially Facebook. For example, Italy is demanding censorship and Germany threatens to fine Facebook for hate speech incidents. Questions over definitions and limitations naturally arise and it doesn’t help that Facebook also plans to promote news from favoured media partners.

For the most part, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears happy to co-operate but he told the Washington Post in November that “The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically” and reminded the paper of his company’s long-standing aversion to becoming the “arbiters of truth.” That said, needing to be seen to do something, Facebook has started removing pages.

As communications prof R. Kelly Garrett warns,  “A social network devoid of emotion seems like a contradiction, and policing who individuals interact with is not something that our society should embrace.” Put another way, are critics saying that if Facebook had censored angry communications, distressed Fishtown would not have voted for Trump? In that case, the critics should give up any pretense of really wanting fellow citizens to make their own decisions within their own groups.

Social media are no more dangerous than life generally. But they require different interpretation skills from what we need for face-to-face contact. So do books, telephone, radio, and TV. And the current angst isn’t a new phenomenon. It normally follows the introduction of new communications technologies. 

One example is the anxiety that resulted from printing, especially of Bibles. The anxiety was not baseless; widespread literacy was one driver of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But would suppressing the printing press have been any help? Was controlling it much of a help? The seething anger already existed and would lead to wars in any event. Literacy helped many people understand their problems in terms of ideas as well as emotions. The centuries of bloodshed eventually resulted in principles of religious toleration that are unknown to much of the world even today (despite the fact that those other regions also have gone through centuries of bloodshed). Yet during all that time, much popular literature was actually scandal and drivel.

Government can only drive out fake news by trying to control all news, Chinese-style. As a result, real news becomes transgressive. So, ironically, the survival of real news is bound up with the survival of fake news. Put another way, when I whoosh past the checkout counter tabloids, I remind myself that they are a small price to pay for the free press that was built around real news.

See also: Part I: What is fake news? Do we believe it? and Part II: Does fake news make a difference in politics?

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.

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