How do you solve a problem like fake news? It’s up to you!

Fake news is nothing new but modern technology and social media mean that now more than ever, the onus is on all citizens to be more critical and more sceptical, argues Timothy Mantiri

Against the global backdrop of upheaval hitting the political establishment, and in which the intersection of politics, journalism and social media became even more integral to the political process, no other phrase in recent political discourse has gained more prominence than “fake news”. 

The term has been used widely by many in the media and commentariat to help explain Donald Trump’s shock victory in last year’s US presidential election as well as by President Trump himself when describing certain news outlets. The most notable occasion being a fiery exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a press conference, where Trump refused the outlet a question by stating “you are fake news”.

The term has even had a run closer to home with Treasurer Scott Morrison earlier in the year describing reports of a push inside the Coalition to kick start the same sex marriage debate as "fake news" as well as late last year when Resources Minister Matt Canavan accused the ABC of running “nothing but fake news” in its reporting of the Adani coal mine in Queensland. Unsurprisingly, One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts have also embraced the phrase. 

The term “fake news” and its ubiquitous use has even led to it being named Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year. 

What is fake news?
The term came to the fore last year in the lead up to the US Presidential election, originally as a way of describing web sites that published genuine looking news stories shared on social media, particularly Facebook.
Some of the most prominent examples included one which falsely claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump which picked up over a million Facebook engagements as well as an article that alleged without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.

Mainstream news outlets at the time picked up on the proliferation of these articles. A month before the election The Washington Post published the results of its own experiment that monitored four users’ Facebook accounts from August 31 to September 22 of last year and found that five “indisputably fake” and three “profoundly inaccurate” stories trended on the website, meaning that they were placed by Facebook’s news algorithms front and centre in users’ newsfeeds.

Similarly, a few days before the election Buzzfeed unveiled the results of its own extensive analysis, which found that hyper-partisan Facebook pages most likely to post inaccurate stories received far more shares, likes, and comments than mainstream news pages. These reports into the proliferation of deliberately misleading news articles on social media referred to these stories as "fake news" thereby assigning a shorthand moniker to the new and concerning phenomena.

More recently, the term has been used by politicians around the globe as an attempt to discredit criticism from journalists and news media. Ironically, this characterisation of the mainstream media as fake news was first used by one of its greatest beneficiaries, President Trump himself, who in December last year tweeted “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue, FAKE NEWS!” From that moment and on many occasions since, President Trump has resorted to the term to describe media outlets he regards as dishonest and deceitful. 

A real and dangerous problem
While President Trump and other politicians have begun to trivialise the term by using it to attack reputable media outlets whom they deem unfavourable, the phenomena fake news – originally coined to describe  the deliberate construction of fabrications and lies in the form of news articles intended to mislead the public, usually with a monetary or political benefit motive – signifies a new and dangerous dimension in political discourse when coupled with contemporary means of communication and trends in news consumption.

There is nothing new about lies propagated by individuals, organisations and governments in political discourse, however advancements in communications technology, in particular the development of social media, has enabled the increasing proliferation of fake news stories in the information ecosystem as well as its distribution to an audience wider than ever before. Furthermore as an increasing number of people admit to getting their news from social media, the potential for fake news articles being consumed and crucially, believed, grows inexorably.  

While instances were seen among supporters of both sides of the recent US election battle, Donald Trump’s campaign was seen by many as a particular beneficiary of fake news reports. As a study by economists at Stanford University and New York University published two months after November’s US presidential election found; in the run-up to the vote, fake anti-Clinton stories were shared 30 million times on Facebook, while those favouring her were shared only eight million times. However, it is worth noting that recent reports have signaled that fake news has begun to skew more left with President Trump in power indicating the problem isn’t unique to one side of politics. Regardless of one’s thoughts on a candidate’s stated policies, few would disagree that an electoral result which may have been heavily swayed on deliberate misinformation does anything but undermine our democracy.

Before social media, a filter on flagrant misinformation was provided by established media outlets who acted as gatekeepers to the news. However, in an age of budget cuts in traditional media, and a business model that encourages clickbait and race-to-the-bottom journalism, standards have slipped across the board creating a situation where citizens, political discourse and democracies suffer.

This is a notion shared by President Obama who in one his final appearances as President, noted the threat of fake news to a functioning democracy. In a news conference on a visit to Germany the then President aired his unease at the way that "so much active misinformation" can be "packaged very well" and presented as fact on people’s social media feeds; "If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems…we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms.”

What can be done? Looking to the tech sector
Since the shock electoral victories of 2016 that rocked established notions of politics; experts, the commentariat and politicians themselves have been searching for an explanation for their causes. Much of the analysis has been focused on the intersection of politics, journalism and social media in this day and age, and how the new phenomena of tech-enabled fake news has had an impact on political discourse and the functioning of democracy. While thorough social science research has yet to emerge, many have looked to reforms for the tech sector and social media platforms that facilitate the spread of fake news as the best way to address this issue.

Huge improvements in telecommunications technology, the proliferation of internet tech companies and the development of social media over the last decade has transformed the way people have consumed news. Now that anyone with a smartphone can be a reporter, blogger and photographer with the ability to transmit to the whole world at almost no cost, there is a hyper-abundance of news and no one can control how the information flows. Information in the ecosystem has in many cases become more signal than noise. 

The social media and tech platforms that facilitate this flow of information have begun to realise their obligation to limit the spread of misinformation masquerading as fact. After the contentious 2016 US election, Facebook faced strong criticism for not better policing the torrent of fake news articles that were circulated on its platform. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had long insisted that Facebook was not a media publisher, but rather a technology company, and users were primarily responsible for the content that was spread over the platform. However by late 2016, the problem was too great to ignore and Facebook announced a raft of measures to tackle the spread of misinformation. Zuckerberg was careful in stating that "we don't want to be arbiters of truth," before laying out a series of protocols that were being developed. These included disrupting the economics of fake news websites by blocking ad sales to disputed sites, and bringing in a third-party verification process to label certain articles as false or disputed.

These strategies are certainly a welcome approach from the tech sector in trying to deal with this issue, however there are limits to how effective these approaches on their own will be. While tech companies such as Facebook and Google have begun to understand their obligation to regulate information that guises as news, they are unlikely to undertake severe action that undermines their business models that rely on increased activity and the outflow of traffic to external websites. As Jeffery Herbst noted in the Wall Street Journal when writing on the limits of depending on tech companies to provide a solution to the fake news problem, “These companies have achieved commercial success beyond anything seen in human history because they excel at giving consumers exactly what they want.”

Increasing regulation for fake news on social media sites such as Facebook also poses complications in regards to free speech and as satire. Satirical news sites such as The Onion and Australia’s own Betoota Advocate are clearly fake news, with headlines such as "Malcolm Turnbull tells those relying on penalty rates that 'they should’ve listened in school'" and "New 'Bad Boy' Bill Shorten fronts media with Bailey Nelsons on the back of his neck", would Facebook under new fake news guidelines respond by purging them off their site? Similarly would editorial pieces from personal blogs be deemed as fake news too?

Ultimately, it’s on us
To borrow an analogy from the academic field of economics, reforming the way traditional and social media platforms approach the dilemma of fake news represent ‘supply-side’ reforms, that is, the aim of the reforms is to ensure that only genuine news is supplied to consumers by reducing the number of fake news stories in the information ecosystem.

However, given some of the limitations of those supply side reforms, it is clear that the reforms to the ‘demand side’ of the fake news problem will also have a large role to play in providing a solution. Much in the same way that markets for goods and services work, when there is higher demand for a good or service, suppliers will strive to meet the demand to capitalise on increased sales. If consumers indicate demand for higher quality news, the workings of the market will ensure that quality journalism is consistently delivered.

The question lies in the way consumer tastes can be changed so that citizens more often than not demand high-quality news that may be more costlier when they are swamped with low-quality news that is free, and often more entertaining. This is one area where the government and specifically the education system can play a role in limiting the damage of fake news by placing emphasis in the class room on critical thinking, literacy and the crafting of evidence-based arguments. 

Social-studies and journalism programs in secondary schools and universities could be adapted to improve media literacy and help students become responsible citizens in the modern digital age. Prompting citizens to become intentional news consumers in this way may prove to be a long term but worthwhile approach.

The integrity of information about current events and persons of public interest is part of the critical infrastructure of liberal democracy. In 1817 founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote; "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens."

As the meaning of "enlightened citizenry" has been transformed due to the abundance and ease of access to information that modern technology has provided since Jefferson’s day, so has the constitution of a ‘suitable education’. Modern education must now adapt to equip citizens with the skills to not only be able to read and comprehend information, but also to discern what is real from fake in the modern information ecosystem if the threat to civics, citizenry and democracy that fake news poses is to be thwarted. 

Ultimately we are all responsible for the information we consume and share. Fake news has existed for as long as the spoken word, but with technology fundamentally changing the way we communicate now more than ever, the onus is on all of us to become more sceptical and more critical in this brave new world of ubiquitous misinformation.