I get it. Traditional journalism is flawed. I get it. We have some things to fix but I’m worried that what we’re doing and what fake news is helping us do is throw the baby out with the bathwater and that’s dangerous, because we are uniquely equipped and resourced to hold power to account even if you don’t believe we do it all the time.
On the first Sunday after the inauguration on Meet the Press I don’t know if how many of you ever watch Meet the Press but it’s on NBC, my colleague Chuck Todd hosts it and Kellyanne Conway went up, you may have seen this clip. She went up there and told Chuck that there are alternative facts. We’d never really heard that term before and Chuck very quickly responded that alternative facts are not facts.
But part of the problem is that when the President of the United States is encouraging his supporters to believe that the media is not just out of touch or somewhat ineffective but it’s actually lying, it causes the problem and that’s just one in a range of problems that are caused by this fake news phenomenon. At its lowest level it’s a time suck, it confuses you, it causes you to spend your time trying to discern between fake news and real news and I think over time it can blunt your ability to actually do so.
I’ll give you an example. A BuzzFeed study said that in 2016, of the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook they had 8.7 million shares, comments, reactions. Of the top 20 real news stories by major news organizations they had 1.7 million fewer. So fake news is crowding out real news. It means that journalists like me instead of following other stories and giving you new journalism and telling you stories about new things we’re busy debunking myths. And that’s part of the problem that we’ve got.
And it’s about money initially. It started to be about money and advertising and let me tell you how it used to work in the world of money and advertising.
In the old days, a newspaper ad department person would meet with a real person at an advertising agency who was working on behalf of an advertiser or a company that wanted to be associated — one of their brand associated with the news outlets brand. But none of this happens anymore.
Now algorithms determine the ads you see on the internet based on your surfing habits or your shopping habits and based on the cookies that are on the sites that you use. So you get information based on where you surf. And if you start consuming fake news you’ll actually end up with more of it.
Let me explain to you how these people make money. Let’s say that you saw a story show up somewhere in your feed that Justin Bieber is moving to Kingston, doesn’t really matter whether you like Justin Bieber or you don’t, if he’s moving to Kingston you’re going to you’re going to check the story, you’re going to click on the story. And they count on the fact that you do.
So you’re going to go to this absolutely made-up story but there’ll be an ad near it. And as a result the advertiser pays the owner of that website a certain amount of money, a fraction of a cent and they do this lots of times.
Then let’s say this purveyor of fake news takes that story and changes Kingston to one of any of 100 different towns around the country so now everybody’s clicking on this story and that they change the name of Justin Bieber to one of a hundred different other celebrities. This is how it happens. Everybody clicks on these things. This is how they end up making money and it’s dangerous.
And what if it’s not actually about making money, it’s really not harmful that you read a story about Justin Bieber moving to Kingston, if Justin Bieber’s not actually moving to Kingston. Again it’s a time suck but doesn’t really matter.
But what if it’s about religion or it’s about ideology or it’s there to influence politics that’s the danger. So my first piece of advice to you is that if you wish to avoid the purveyors of fake news who live in dark alleys stay out of the dark alleys. Trust and support traditional journalism which is devoted to research and fact-checking and in-depth investigation of issues, the very journalism that is under attack right now.
It’s under attack because it doesn’t do everything you wanted it to do but it’s still there and you should actually try and rely on it. You want a fact check and fact-checking is becoming easier and easier now because these fact-checking sites abound.
But how do you actually fight this kind of nonsense? How do you fight the journalism that’s out there? Well you start by supporting these journalistic organizations and you start by using these fact-checking sites. If the New York Times and CNN tell you they both take checking deaths out very seriously and they both do it independently. If they tell you George Michael’s dead, George Michael is probably actually dead. If Donald Trump says his inauguration crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s inauguration crowds, check the methodology that he’s citing and check the methodology of those who are saying otherwise. It’s actually relatively easy to do, sometimes it’s just your eyeballs that you need.
But the fact is there are fact-checking sites out there and remember that fake news purveyors count on the fact that you are abjectly lazy and you are much more likely to repost salacious news than to actually check the veracity of real news. Check it. It’s not hard to do. You can get out there and find out what’s going on.