Since November’s presidential election, we’ve seen a spike of fake news. But what exactly is fake news? I’ve seen it labeled as hoaxes, propaganda, lies—whatever you want to call it, it’s spreading like a virus. And although hoaxes and propaganda have always existed, the way it’s being distributed through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter is causing this epidemic of misinformation to travel far and wide. According to BBC News technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population receive their news on Facebook. Not all the stories they read are true, but that doesn’t stop them from hitting the share button.
“Whoever created this torrent of untruth probably had two motives—to cause mischief and to make a large amount of cash through the adverts that are the lifeblood of Facebook and the businesses which live off what it describes as its ecosystem,” Cellan-Jones wrote.
Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and ethics of information, recently wrote in the Guardian that we are going through a “post-truth crisis,” where there is a need “for shallow gossip, pleasant lies and reassuring falsehoods…The difference is that the internet allows that appetite to be fed a bottomless supply of semantic junk,” creating “echo chambers.”
“These kinds of digital, ethical problems represent a defining challenge of the 21st century,” wrote Floridi. “They include breaches of privacy, of security and safety, of ownership and intellectual property rights, of trust, of fundamental human rights, as well as the possibility of exploitation, discrimination, inequality, manipulation, propaganda, populism, racism, violence and hate speech.”
All of this sounds like a recipe for a volatile environment.
Fake news is such a hot topic that even President Obama weighed in on the subject after the election. “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,” he said at a press conference in Germany. “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted.”
With President-elect Donald Trump set to take office this month, newspapers at major publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have seen a major bump in subscriptions. In a span of a few weeks after the election, the Times confirmed it had about 132,000 paid print and digital subscriptions while the Journal reported it saw a 300 percent increase in new subscribers a day after Trump was elected.
Publishers should take this news as an encouraging sign that the public does want accurate and truthful reporting. Newspapers remain an important and powerful brand, and they should be the solution for fake news. Let’s not forget that before social media and algorithms dictated to us what was considered news, newspapers were our source of information. Despite many journalists operating with leaner newsrooms and resources, they still put in the same time and energy while covering this election. But when we look back at 2016, there were certainly some media lessons that had we all had to learn, but now we need to move forward and pick ourselves up because there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done.
In this month’s cover story, Bob Provost (a former marketing executive with the Albany Times Union in New York and Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.) discusses how the newspaper industry needs to find its brand and market it effectively. As we try to prevent fake news from spreading, now is the perfect time to remind everyone how real newspapers are.