Fake news isn’t the problem, we are

24 January 2018

Fake news isn’t the problem, we are

Image credit: Mike MacKenzie (Flickr) – CC BY 2.0

After copping criticism over the spread of “fake news” via Facebook during the 2016 US Presidential Election, Mark Zuckerberg has announced Facebook is introducing measures that will prioritise “trusted” and “informative” news sources in users’ Facebook News Feeds.

According to Mr Zuckerberg:

“There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today. Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don’t specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them. That’s why it’s important that News Feed promotes high quality news that helps build a sense of common ground.”

Fair enough, Mark. I completely agree. “Fake news” is all over the place, and it appears people read it and believe it. This is absolutely a problem, but so too is censorship.

The move raises so many questions. Who decides what is “trusted” and “informative”? What constitutes “fake news”? Will outlets like The Daily Telegraph be censored because they sensationalise? Who decides whether an outlet is spreading misinformation?

Now, Zuckerberg must be given due credit. In the announcement he made on Facebook, he acknowledges the difficulty of deciding what constitutes a trusted news source. He notes that the world is a divided place, and that Facebook is not comfortable deciding what news sources are trusted. He also writes that having experts decide would not ensure objectivity either. So, instead he has said users will decide.

“As part of our ongoing quality surveys, we will now ask people whether they’re familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source. The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly.”

This is probably the best way that it could be done, but that does not necessarily mean it is a good idea. It is not the responsibility of governments or social networking sites to tell us what a trusted news source is. The onus is on the individual reader, listener or viewer to make that decision when they are faced with content.

Call me an idealist, but I expect people to think for themselves. I expect people to know the difference between fact, opinion, propaganda, and fiction. When it comes to the consumption of news, I have found that there are four main types of people:

  1. Cherry pickers, who doubt everything they read unless it suits them. They often subscribe to conspiracy theories and tend to perpetuate fake news.
  2. Critical thinkers, who actively engage with the content they read and form educated opinions. They will likely follow a number of different news outlets.
  3. The indecisive, who do not know where to stand on issues and can be easily swayed. They often form an opinion on an issue based on a single headline.
  4. The gullible, who will believe anything they read, especially if the headline includes the phrase “what they don’t want you to know …”.

How do we counter fake news? Frankly, there is only one way — we should all strive to be critical thinkers, and not let other people do our thinking for us. Just as democracy needs active participants, the news media needs people to be engaged for it to function effectively and serve us and democracy. All that needs to happen is for social media users to read and think before sharing content.

It has been asserted that fake news influences the outcomes of Western elections. If that is true, it is a testament to the state and value of critical thinking in Western democracies. Therein lies the problem.

My main concern is that outlets that express “undesirable” perspectives will be censored. Russia Today (RT), a multilingual Russian state-funded news outlet, and its sister publication Sputnik have been accused by the US of disseminating misinformation regarding Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US Election, as well as behaving similarly in other elections in Europe. They have also been accused of publishing pro-Russian propaganda. Will they be pushed down to the bottom of user’s news feeds?

I follow RT and Sputnik with the full knowledge that they are communicating news from a pro-Russian stance. I also follow Radio Free Europe/Liberty Radio and Voice of America, both US Government-funded news outlets which are just as blatantly pro-US as RT and Sputnik are pro-Russian. And I follow Xinhua News Agency and Global Times, both Chinese state-funded, pro-China news outlets.

There are plenty of news outlets which could be accused of spreading misinformation, simply because they do not align with the opinions of other people. Whereas I might believe The Daily Telegraph is biased and sensationalist and leads to misinformation, their readers would disagree with me, and tell me that the ABC is doing the same. That’s fine, because the power is in our hands to decide what we believe to be trusted news sources.

I appreciate Zuckerberg’s position on fake news, but this is a slippery slope, even if Facebook users are given the decision. Deciding what material we see is not something that should be outsourced to anyone.