The challenge of manufactured news is one that must be faced down for the sake of healthy democracy, writes David O’Mahony.
The news that Germany may fine Facebook €500,000 per fake news post has to be welcomed. It’s just a pity that it’s come down to such drastic action.
This has been a year when the media has had to take a hard look at itself. Not because it was failing to report on what mattered, but because it was overtaken by clickbait and nonsense. Not entirely, of course. But sadly the news that got the most traction at times during the year was fake.
Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed crunched the numbers and showed that, in the last three months of campaigning for the US presidential election, the top 20 fake news stories outperformed the top 20 stories from mainstream media outlets, with 8.7m engagements on Facebook compared to 7.3m for the mainstream publishers.
But please stop calling it fake news. It’s fiction, at best designed to make money off people who don’t realise it, and at worst designed to influence through malice and rabble-rousing.
Does that sound too harsh? The surliness of somebody who has spent years working in the media, for respected titles, in two countries? It shouldn’t. This is quite serious.
This is hugely different from satire sites, or publications that generate fictional stories for entertainment. Think The Onion, or Waterford Whispers. Those are fun, light relief (although occasionally biting in their satire).
The originators of these stories know what they are and are open about it. And it isn’t pure clickbait either, which may oversell articles to get you to read them but are kind of disposable entertainment. No, these are designed to linger, even fester.
It’s not just the Breitbarts of the world. There’s the city of Veles in Macedonia, where hundreds of people churned out pro-Trump stories that were often plagiarised.
There’s the organised network controlled by Italian opposition party the Five Star Movement, which passes off these manufacturing sites as independent sources of legitimate news.
And with social media — and a team of highly motivated social media workers and enthusiasts harnessing the now natural instinct of many to share without thinking — it’s relatively easy for something with little or no substance to grow legs. The more shares, the more eyeballs, the more likely it is to be shared again.
We’ve seen how ‘Pizzagate’ — the frankly insane story that Hilary Clinton and her affiliates were running a child trafficking ring out of a pizzeria — had violent, real-world consequences. A man fired a gun in a public place because he was so convinced by the story’s credibility that he felt he had to investigate it himself. There was no evidence, no police investigation, just something on the web that took hold.
Even Clinton has spoken out about it. She told politicians in Washington earlier in December that this so-called fake news was a threat to democracy.
“This isn’t about politics or partisanship,” she said. “Lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.
“It’s imperative that leaders from the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives.”
Stark words, but ones that seem to be borne out by the evidence. A pluralistic, robust media is important in maintaining a healthy democracy by holding government and those in high office to account. That might sound like a line from a civics class but it’s true.
I don’t agree that this sort of dissemination won the election for Trump, by the way. But it did help motivate people and it created a certain narrative about Trump and his campaign that carried weight, as well as affecting the polls (the American situation is more nuanced than that though).
I’m not saying this is has taken off in Ireland, or even the UK, although a sizeable amount of credibility is given to material shared through social media. Dan Brooke, the chief marketing and communications manager for Channel 4, has warned that false news could undermine the next election in Britain.
He told the Westminster Media forum recently: “Fake news does not seem to be quite so rife in the UK, yet the US is often the canary in the coalmine. We have more than three years before our next general election, so let’s act now to ensure the same doesn’t happen here.
“Something must be done. So I’ll say to social media players today: with your power comes responsibility. Much … greater … responsibility than you have yet shown. They claim they are technology companies … not media companies … and therefore that the regulation of content is not their responsibility.”
And this is where the Germans are coming from. It is the threat of parliamentary elections next year being affected that’s prompted the authorities there to warn Facebook of possible fines. Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen, but it’s a sign of how seriously this has to be taken.
In many ways, it is hugely encouraging that outlets such as the New York Times have seen a surge in subscriptions since the American presidential election. There is a huge appetite for quality, compelling journalism. And the storytelling possibilities for journalists are myriad and incredible.
But, even as it becomes easier to share quality journalism, that same ease of sharing applies to these news manufacturing sites. So it becomes more incumbent on established media to continue producing high-quality news, analysis, and investigations as the best way of tackling falsehood, misrepresentation, and general nonsense.
David O’Mahony has worked at regional and national papers in Ireland and the UAE. He is executive production editor for the Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, Roscommon Herald, and Western People.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved