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Can media and the public fight fake news?

In the age of digital, the media has had to adapt to the constant changes in how news is published and consumed. Misinformation and disinformation - as many call "fake news" - has become the latest challenge for global media. How do journalists filter through the junk and how do readers know where to find the truth?

Protesters demand the resignation of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II outside the Justice Department, in Manila, Philippines, 20 September 2017. Aguirre was accused of spreading fake news against the opposition
Protesters demand the resignation of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II outside the Justice Department, in Manila, Philippines, 20 September 2017. Aguirre was accused of spreading fake news against the opposition

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

This statement was originally published on wan-ifra.org on 30 October 2017.

By Colette Davidson

When Jevin West put up the free online class, "Calling Bullshit," one night in January, he never expected the reaction he'd get. When he woke up the next morning, he found that tens of thousands of people from around the world had signed up.

"The class looks at not just how to spot BS but how to refute it," says West, Assistant Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington.

In an age where talk of fake news seems to be taking over the news headlines more and more every day, West felt it was important to help the public learn how to read the news with a more refined eye and how to break apart a data argument

"We're specifically looking at the topic of BS but more importantly at data," says West. "There are always ways of manipulating statistics, graphs, etc."

With the success of "Calling Bullshit" online, West decided to offer the same class at the University of Washington. As soon as registration for the class - which could hold 180 seats - opened, it filled up in less than a minute.

The public's desire to suss out the BS in the news highlights the growing problem of fake news and its seemingly uncontrollable reach. From Russian propaganda techniques and troll factories to click farms and automated social media accounts, it's getting harder and harder for readers - and the media - to decipher what's real and what's not. The best way to get a handle on the problem? The public and the media need to work together.

According to a study by the BBC World Service in September 2017, fake news is a concern for a majority of people – 79 percent of respondents said they were worried about what was fake and what was real on the internet. Respondents in Brazil were the most worried, with 92 percent expressing concern, while the least worried were the Germans with 51 percent of respondents indicating concern.

Claire Wardle, of First Draft News, says the term "fake news" is largely insufficient to explain the phenomenon. In her report, "Information Disorder," co-authored with Hossein Derakhshan, fake news is broken down into three terms: mis-information, dis-information and mal-information. Fake news can either be false information that is not intended to cause harm, false information that is intended to cause harm or genuine information that is shared to cause harm.

The consequences of the fake news trend, says Wardle, are paramount for how people read the news because it can cause them to lose trust in their sources of information.

"If we lose a sense of trusted sources, and throw up our hands and say nothing can be believed, we're in a dangerous place," says Wardle. "People need to be informed to make the right decisions. If we lose trust in our information sources, and turn away from news, we can't do that."

Fake news is hard to gauge not only because it looks just like the real thing, but because it often preaches to the choir. Because we often only read what interests us – which is increasingly easy to do with digital news and click-through formats - we may have a less scrupulous eye when reading content in a framework that we already believe.

"In the world we live in, people aggregate in these tribal groups with shared interests and can live in echo chambers," says West. "Marketers and propagandists can take advantage of these kinds of situations and inject content into these echo chambers."

One of the major problems with fake news is, of course, deciphering what's real and what's not. That's where courses like "Calling Bullshit" come in - helping the public to read with a more skeptical eye, read the fine print, fact-check statistics and look for anomalies in graphs.

Part of the challenge is time, people are taking less and less of it when reading the news. Whether it's over email, news alerts, internet searches or social media, most people click through content within seconds, often only reading headlines or one paragraph of an article. Many share articles on social media without even having read the content fully. And social media, according to "Information Disorder," is a primary way that fake news survives.

Jeff Jarvis, a news integrist, author and professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, spoke at a session that addressed fake news during the WAN-IFRA Expo and DCX conference in Berlin at the beginning of October. There, he said that the media must take a prominent role in dealing with misinformation.

"Fact checking is a necessity, but it is insufficient," he said. "First, we have to help the public regain trust in facts," he said. "We have to get them to trust truth again."

Wardle says that the media needs to make more significant changes to how it monitors fake news content or provide training so journalists and editors can track and debunk it. Right now, she says, the media is not handling the fake news trend particularly well and the constant coverage of disinformation has the potential to cause people to become even more disillusioned with their institutions.

"I think we need to be more careful about what we report, when and how," she says.

Already, Facebook and Google have announced methods to prevent fake sites from benefiting financially from their advertising platforms, and Germany recently passed a law to fine social media platforms that host unlawful hate speech.

Subscriptions to reliable news publications - with traditional editors and fact checking - are also going up, which has the power to safeguard against misinformation. The only major challenge here, says West, is convincing the younger generation that they need to pay for quality journalism.

Despite the challenges the fake news trend poses to journalism today, West says he's confident the media can get through it. After all, he says, democracy depends on good journalism.

"I'm optimistic that as a world society we can respond to this," says West, "but we need to keep writing about it, and researchers and technologists need to be thinking about how we can overcome this problem so that information integrity can start going back up."

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