Fake News, Clickbait and the Fate of Digital Media in the Post-Truth Era

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After the  Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media’s inquiry into the proliferation of fake news on October 4, 2017 the term “Fake News” has become a hot topic in the country and fingers have been pointed in every direction. With some even going so far as to wanting to hold purveyors of fake news legally accountable. Some blame technology while others blame political pundits. But in the rush to pin the blame on a single source has anyone stopped to identify what fake news actually is and considered a practical solution that doesn’t destroy free speech? It’s easy to fall into believing falsehoods in what some are calling the post-truth era dominated by clickbait, let’s take a step back and survey the issue and consider the practical options.

After all, the Bill of Rights, Article III Section 4 of the 1987 constitution states:

No Law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances

Let us not be so quick to cling to legislation (that may or may not be effective) in a knee-jerk reaction to something that seems like a new issue, when in fact it has been prevalent in our past.

 

What is Fake News?

via pixabay.com

 

According to time.com, dictionary.com is looking to use this as their definition of Fake News:

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

While the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster are hesitant to add the term into their dictionaries.

In the article “The Real Story of ‘Fake News’”Merriam-Webster stated:

The reason fake news is unlikely to be entered in our dictionary anytime soon is that it is a self-explanatory compound noun — a combination of two distinct words, both well known, which when used in combination yield an easily understood meaning. Fake news is, quite simply, news (“material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast”) that is fake (“false, counterfeit”).

One thing seems clear,  There’s no consensus on what Fake News is.

To me, the term Fake News has the connotation of conscious deception. Claiming falsehoods as facts in an attempt to deceive as many people as possible to fit a narrative that is intended to purely benefit an entity (whether it be a person, organization or corporation). Fake news is not misreporting an event or misquoting someone or having some sort of error in something published, especially when these can be corrected. When a news outlet inadvertently publishes something incorrect they should not be considered a fake news platform, but they should be held accountable to fix their errors and recognize them.

Case in point: in the Philippine Star’s article ‘Fake news cultivates a culture of lying’ covering Senator Grace Poe’s opening statement for the senate committee on public information and mass media’s inquiry into the proliferation of fake news, the publication quoted the senator saying:

via philstar.com (screenshot)

 

The actual quote should reads as follows:

Kung hahayaan natin ‘yan baka lumaki ang mga bata ngayon na intolerant sa pananaw ng iba at madaling maniwala sa haka haka.
We need to expose them to a kind of conversation that educates and enlightens, that relies on the truth and not the kind that disrespects facts.

You can check for yourself in the video below from 0:34 to 0:42:

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The omission of a three letters has completely changed what the Senator said.

Does that mean that the Philippine Star is a purveyor of fake news? Of course not. This writer made an error which their editor also missed. We’re all human and errors are expected to happen. The truth of the matter is that in the fast paced and highly competitive market of news and media, speed is paramount and accuracy comes second.

 

Where Does Fake News Come from?

via pixabay.com

 

As I outlined above Fake News is spread by people or organizations with an agenda and a narrative to promote.  These outfits or individuals willingly distribute false information on disposable blog sites and spread it to as many people as possible usually with the use of social media and clickbait titles.

Clickbait as defined by Merriam-Webster is:

something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

While the term clickbait seems new (with Merriam-Webster citing the first known use of which was in 1999) the concept is not. Catchy sensationalist headlines have been used by newspapers and tabloids since the heyday of yellow journalism in the 1890’s. Back then the catchy headlines would convince people to buy the newspaper and read it. Often times the sensationalized headlines were for a more mundane story,an elaborate hoax outright false news or just a different article altogether. Does this seem familiar?

Surely everyone who has used the internet has come upon a clickbait article and been disappointed by the actual truth after reading the article. However, most people don’t even go this far and just take the title for fact and even like or share it with their friends and family, just for kicks. Clickbait titles are often considered fact because the absurdity or sensationalist feel of the clickbait makes it stick in their memory. But this is where false news gets its claws.

When people start liking and sharing an article, whether it’s true or not, it starts a snowball effect. After a few likes and shares more people who find it interesting like and share it which in turn distributes it to more people, so on and so forth.

In fact some Fake News is never intended to be taken as fact but ends up spreading as fact for two reasons; some people didn’t read it completely or do any form of fact checking (most likely due to a really catchy clickbait title) and others simply don’t care that it’s fake and want to spread it to keep the narrative going. Satirists like Paul Horner and websites like theonion.com write articles that are purely satire but sometimes even credible news organizations accidentally pick up their articles as fact.

In the video below Anderson Cooper interviews Paul Horner on writing fake news.

Anderson Cooper said:

“…[with] satire, usually the reader knows that its satire […] like with The Onion. Everyone knows The Onion is satire, a lot of folks are actually fooled by your […] articles. But you’re also spreading false information.

And Paul Horner defended himself by saying:

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I do it to try to educate people […] within that story I have links to all the different facts to the purpose of the story.

Although Anderson Cooper takes a jab at him for the money he earns from the sharing of his work, the fact that there are links within the articles to discredit the article itself should be reason enough to know that it’s false information but for the sake of satire. To me this does not make Paul Horner guilty of proliferating fake news. Those who spread his work as fact knowing that it’s satire are guilty of it, while those who do not check the links and sources are unwitting accomplices.

Fake news can get bounced around within so-called echo chambers where like minded people with the same political views keep bouncing the same articles around without ever questioning their own views or allowing proper dialogue from the opposition. Fake news thrives in such environments because there is no reason or incentive to question the veracity of the information being presented. If it fits the group’s narrative they all believe it and accept it as fact.

 

Can Fake News be Stopped?

via pixabay.com

 

Some say that stopping Fake News is impossible since we now live in what they call the Post-Truth Era. They believe that due to the number of news outlets available online and the speed at which information is passed, there is no longer a way to verify truth from falsehood. They may claim that there is no longer “truth” since there is no metaphorical yard stick to measure it with.

Some even consider that a government entity should be responsible for fact checking the news and penalizing outlets for fake news. The danger in this idea is giving this responsibility to any one entity or organization gives them almost unlimited power to control the facts. As Lord Acton once said “absolute power corrupts absolutely“. The reason that the bill of rights insures the freedom of the press is because it cannot, and should not, be a solely government institution because it will become a self glorifying, non-critical entity.

So that brings us back to square one: Can Fake News Be stopped?

The creation of falsehoods can never be stopped, but the proliferation can. But how can this be done?

It is neither simple nor easy as the weight of responsibility falls on the shoulders of the people who consume the news. It is each and every person’s responsibility to be critical and not open their mouths to be spoon-fed “facts” that are so eagerly swallowed. The simple inquisitive words Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How backed up with fact checking from multiple sources are the solution to the problem. Publications that publish falsehoods should be informed of their mistakes, and if they do not change they should be avoided.  If you didn’t read the full article, don’t share or like it. Teach your friends and family how to spot and stop fake news.

Simply put, the free market will rid the system of Fake News when the public stops buying it.

 

By: Nick Hernandez, Editor

 

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SOURCE: philstar.com | merriam-webster.com 1 | merriam-webster.com 2officialgazette.gov.ph | ethicaljournalismnetwork.org | time.com | npr.org

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