Fake news a consequence of sweeping changes in technology
Wednesday, December 14, 2016 9:48 AM
The sins of journalism have always centered on items such as inaccuracies, sloppy reporting, plagiarism, conflicts of interest and misrepresentation of news. However, a new one has emerged, although it isn’t a practice of real journalists: Inventing stories and disguising them as the reporting of actual news agencies.
A link is included at the end of the story to connect readers to the fake news writer from Colorado referenced in the column. It is a story from National Public Radio.
Yes, fake news has become quite a concern of people from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to election officials. No reputable news organization touches fake news, but the trend damages the reputations of all news organizations — and, ultimately, could replace them.
Fake news also has immediate, real world implications as evidenced by a North Carolina man who recently entered a pizza place in Washington, D.C., firing one shot with an assault rifle in what he said was an attempt to investigate a fictitious conspiracy story involving Hillary Clinton.
The election put the spotlight on fake news as some people felt the trend had an influence on the outcome. Fake political news stories were shared often on social media prior to voting Nov. 8.
However, fake news isn’t really a partisan issue. Propaganda, or influencing an election, is the aim of a few, but the majority of perpetrators are in it for the money. A traditional news reporter recently caught up with a person in Colorado who manufactures news stories. The reporter discovered he was a Democrat, but his conspiracy stories that appealed to president-elect Donald Trump supporters were the most popular, thus providing him the most income so he cranked out fake news linking Hillary Clinton to far-fetched conspiracies.
The issue shows how technology has changed the news industry — and is changing society in ways not always comprehended by people who look at the world today through 20th century eyes.
Traditional media has always operated with news and advertising side-by-side. The goal for the advertiser was to reach as many people as possible, and the only way to do that was to get more readers, listeners or viewers of their message, which was possible when people turned to a publication or station for news.
Under this method, publishers had to provide high quality, factual and entertaining journalism to keep eyes and ears on their product. If quality dwindled, or the content wasn’t reliable, the audience could leave, thus advertisers would flee as well since they would be losing the attention of potential customers.
Today, people spend a lot of time online, which also has news, some of it from traditional media. The web isn’t inherently an extension of traditional media, although sometimes media treats it as such. It’s a whole new reality.
For one thing, the web is interactive. Online advertising is measured by the success of that interaction. Publisher ad revenue is based on two main factors — impressions, which is when someone sees advertisements, and click-through rate, which is when someone actually clicks on ads.
The key to making money in the new publishing landscape is to get people to visit websites to increase the numbers and make more money. It turns out the easiest way to do this is to bait people with half-truths, even outright lies, about a topic people care about. The heated presidential campaign provided just the right environment for fake news to thrive.
Most people acknowledge that fake news is an actual problem, but there is no easy solution to fix this trend.
Some want Zuckerberg and other social media CEOs to take on the role of gatekeeper as the traditional media does. Zuckerberg is finding it isn’t so easy to grapple with the intricacies of media ethics, which even traditional media doesn’t always get right, and it isn’t financially lucrative since he feels he has the audience no matter what invades the space of users on Facebook.
Some people don’t even want the interference. They abhor the gatekeeper status of traditional media, claiming they filter the news for their own interests. The truth is relative and facts are subjective to these people who feel they can make up their own minds about the nature of reality.
This has many traditionalists on edge since how does a country engage in public discourse if people can’t understand, or even agree on, the facts?
That trend isn’t affecting just media. Trump’s success shows that many people reject the gatekeeper status of political parties, religious figures and traditional figureheads of society. Even democracy is threatened as the common perception is trending toward the belief that elections are rigged, so evidence of possible improprieties aren’t important if the right candidate wins.
Technology has given power to the people, in a sense.
However, if news becomes a commodity regardless of accuracy, will all the major media die off? Who will provide reliable, factual journalism?
If Trump’s candidacy shows a path to the future when candidates bypass the vetting of political parties, and major media, what’s to stop demagogues who appeal to prejudices rather than rational argument? Will the candidate with the most messages that go viral win?
Even online commerce, seen as a great convenience now, has repercussions. With companies taking products directly to the consumer, could they find a way to mass-market products while bypassing regulations that ensure safety, legality and morality?
There is no turning back the clock and there is no denying that technology has the power to change the world. We just need to understand the consequences better. It may seem as if it is bringing enlightenment, but in reality it may just be throwing us back into the dark ages.