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Economic Truths: How fake news is jeopardising our critical thinking

Trump press

One year on from Donald Trump’s sensationalist election, media lawyer Magnus Boyd examines the rise of fake news and how the “marketplace of ideas” is a dangerously erroneous measure of truth  

Fake news works by having the appearance of real news and feeling, to many consumers, like it ought to be true because it panders to their assumptions and preconceptions.

Fake news is nothing new. In fact, it is as old as news itself. There is a long history of false reporting ranging from hoaxes such as the New York Sun’s “discovery” of life on the Moon in 1835, to the 1957 Panorama broadcast about spaghetti trees. At the other end of the spectrum are more serious conspiracies such as the Daily Mail’s publication of the “Zinoviev letter” in 1924, or the more recent story that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump.

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There are three reasons for the modern day phenomenon of fake news. The first is the democratisation of publishing: you no longer need to be a newspaper magnate to disseminate false news. Anyone can fake a story or photoshop an image and post it to a social network using their mobile phone.

The second is the rise of the citizen journalist. Major news providers have become increasingly reliant on user generated content to keep up with the accelerating news cycle so that news, as Jeremy Paxman put it, “is determined not by its importance but by its availability”. Citizen journalists, without the training and editorial discipline of professional journalists, conflate the public interest with what is interesting to the public and so create the conditions for fake news to flourish.

The third reason lies with us — the consumers of fake news. As more of us use online aggregators to determine what we read, we create our own editorialised bubbles which, in turn, limits our exposure to counter comment and viewpoints. As president Obama noted in his farewell speech, “we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there”. It’s a very small step from reading only what you want to read to believing only what you want to believe — and that is all the oxygen needed for fake news to thrive.

Commercial drivers compound the problem. Most people source their news and information online through a limited number of social media sites and search engines, those same sites derive income when we click on the links they show us. What those sites choose to show us is, in turn, individuated by algorithms which learn from our personal data, data that they are constantly trawling.

As Tim Berners-Lee recently acknowledged, “the net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on — meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire”.

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In last year’s US election, the top 20 fake stories were more popular than the top 20 real stories. There is increasing pressure being applied to news aggregators like Google, who recently withdrew 200 fraudulent sites from their advertising network. Facebook has also reacted by changing its “trending topic” feature to include only substantiated news sources. It has also enlisted the help of the International Fact Checking Network, although Facebook is not paying the Network’s members to provide fact-checking services, so we shall have to see how sustainable a solution that is.

Le Monde’s fact-checking unit, Les Decodeurs, is turning its attention to fake news. The US-based NGO First Draft News is working with Google and Facebook to develop code to use algorithms to fight algorithms. However, steps should be taken to undermine the financial incentives that make fake news profitable and to disincentivise the publication of fake news. One example is the German government’s Bill to issue punitive fines on companies that don’t do enough to combat illicit content.

The ultimate solution, however, is for the general public to be more critical of what they read. Readers need to be their own fact checkers and we need to update the critical thinking skills that we teach children as part of their history and literature curriculums to include the online environment.

In the meantime, we have to live in the “marketplace of ideas” — a tawdry rationale for digital freedom of expression based on the analogy of the economic concept of a free market. It assumes that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in the free and open public discourse online. The reality, however, is not a competition between accuracy and inaccuracy, between objective fact and subjective comment but between what Kellyanne Conway calls, “alternative facts”. Now, more than ever, we need to remember C.P. Scott’s observation that, “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.

Magnus Boyd, partner at the international reputation and privacy consultancy, Schillings, is a specialist media lawyer who advises clients on cyber-attacks, data loss incidents and reputation protection

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