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Fighting “Fake News” the American Way

By Anya Schiffrin, director of the technology and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She will hold a guest lecture on investigative journalism on August 16, 2018 .

In the United States, 2016 was the dividing line between news and fake news. The presidential election kicked up well-planned disinformation campaigns to discredit Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump. Trump won the election and turned fake news – meaning articles that were not true – into “fake news,” a catchy shorthand for any media outlet or news story he doesn’t like. With the help of social media, the phrase quickly caught on among Trump’s supporters, and now news organizations and social media platforms find themselves at the center of a nationwide battle over credibility and the media’s role in American life. Around the world people are asking what role disinformation circulated by Facebook played in the the U.K. vote in 2016 to leave the European Union, the 2017 gains for the far right in Austria and the 2018 win of Italy’s Five Star Movement. Clever and insistent use of disinformation and social media fed voter dissatisfaction and likely helped steer elections to the right. It’s even worse in countries like Myanmar, the Philippines and Sri Lanka where social media is being used to incite extreme violence and hatred.

Journalists, scholars, social media companies and politicians are urgently discussing how to control the spread of disinformation and rebuild public trust in the media. Germany has already acted, passing a law last year that bans online hate speech and holds social media sites like Facebook and Twitter financially accountable for any breach not removed quickly. This year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his plans to introduce a law banning fake news during election cycles. The European Commission has discussed legislation but is unlikely to act, hoping instead that the threat of regulation will force Facebook and Twitter to act.

Free expression groups worry that this kind of self-policing by media companies will lead to “overcompliance” and censorship of legitimate content. They worry even more about laws like the one Malaysia enacted recently against spreading hate speech online which would give offenders up to six years of jail time and fines.

The United States, constrained by free speech laws and the First Amendment, is approaching the problem of how to combat disinformation in a different way: the consumer. Journalists and media foundations are focused on making journalistic practices better and more transparent and  hoping this will build trust in media outlets. Fake news expert journalist Craig Silverman is spreading the word that software programs which identify suspicious sources can help reporters.  Rather than changing their business models, social media companies like Facebook have opted to try to educate audiences on how to tell the difference between fake news and real news. Media magnates Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz have launched a service, Newsguard, that will provide “nutrition labels” of red/yellow/green to thousands of news site and get the  social media companies to pay for it. Despite all the recent  revelations about Cambridge Analytica misusing personal data and the April 2018 congressional hearings with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, it seems unlikely that the US will actually move to regulate hate speech or the social media platforms.

The hope instead is that efforts to promote fact-checking, media literacy and engagement with audiences will at once hobble the spread of disinformation and restore mainstream media to its crucial role as democracy’s watchdog. The argument goes that if local news reporting can be strengthened and made more inclusive, then audiences will be less likely to read disinformation online. If audiences can be taught to identify lies and propaganda they will be less likely to believe what the disinformation they see.

Unfortunately, according to decades of academic research, it isn’t at all clear these kinds of approaches work. Results are inconsistent and inconclusive. It’s likely that once people lose trust in the media they don’t regain it, whatever the efforts by media practitioners. Nor is there evidence that even when people begin to trust their local newspaper or a specific journalist, they extend that confidence to the media as a whole. In addition, scholars have found that a core group of people simply do not believe in evidence and reasoning, regardless of the way it is presented or how solid the proof. For them, the problem of media trust and false news is irrelevant because they will not be swayed from what they believe already.

Journalists need to find a way through, because the situation is dire The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2018 reports that this is the first year the media is the least trusted institution around the world, mainly because people do not trust search engines and social media. Yet that is, in large part, how audiences get their news.

The lessons of the 1990s

The efforts being made today to boost audience engagement and promote news that can help support Democracy are similar to those of the 1990s in the US. At that time, cable television and computers were gaining in popularity and beginning to change the way Americans got their news. No longer did the public share common news sources. In addition, people felt increasingly alienated from the political process and more and more detached from democracy. They simply didn’t believe they had the power to change anything, so voting dropped in congressional and presidential elections. And by 1995 , citizens expressing “a great deal of confidence” in newspapers clocked in at only 21 percent, while television news performed only marginally better at 23 percent, down from 51 and 55 percent respectively in 1988, according to the Yankelovich Monitor.

The news media sees itself as an essential participant in a well-functioning democracy, a body that holds governments to account and exists as a platform for the free flow of ideas and information. Some thought that if Americans were losing their belief in the importance of civic engagement, and mainstream journalism was making them feel even less in control—with its objective stance and simultaneous reliance on sensationalism to boost ratings—then democracy in the U.S. was in trouble. Especially because consumers were turning to radio commentators, television pundits and televangelists to tell them how to digest the news and think about the problems of the day. Not infrequently, these media personalities were doing so by using spotty reasoning and few facts.

Attacks on the media from the right and left during the 1980s didn’t help. Paid media operatives for Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes charged the media with liberal bias in an effort to attack press credibility. The left, including Noam Chomsky, accused the mainstream press of being pawns of their corporate sponsors. The demands of news – deadlines, space and limited resources – meant mistakes happened, which also contributed to audience distrust.

Foundations, scholars and journalists led the way in reimagining the journalists’ role in public life. Public journalists wanted to re-energize civic participation, public discourse and the media’s role in democracy by crossing the line from “objective observers” to participants who still hewed to professional journalism standards. Reporters went directly to residents in the communities they covered to ask them what they were most concerned about and how they could address it. Groups of regional news media formed focus groups and conducted polls to understand local priorities. News outlets helped community members write their own opinion pieces, let readers decide what the local paper covered and published lists of community concerns. One of the hopes was to change people’s opinion of the mainstream media as elites with an inside track to politicians and government workers. Just like today.

Critics worried, among other things, that forsaking objectivity would damage the media’s credibility and would put journalists in the dangerous role of deciding the public agenda rather than reporting on it. The Public Journalism movement was controversial and much derided

It’s been widely studied and there is still little consensus on its effectiveness. Some found the movement did, indeed, boost civic engagement. Others found it made no difference at all. Journalists at the time reported that while public journalism didn’t drive up audience numbers, it did lead to greater audience loyalty and engagement

And here we are today, wrestling with the same questions about the internet.

Yet after nearly 70 years of research, the findings are inconclusive. In addition, it’s difficult to compare numerous studies because of a lack of meta studies and an inconsistency in research methods. There is not even a clear definition or agreed on standard of media trust, and how it differs from credibility.

A frustrating number of questions remain unanswered: Which conditions allow audiences to trust the media? Can those conditions be created? What causal relationships exist, if any, between trust in government and other institutions, and trust in media? Do newsroom practices shape public trust or does a person’s pre-existing biases eclipse them? Once trust is gone, is there any way to restore it? We don’t know.

Do editorial corrections, written to amend the record and long assumed to promote reader trust, work? The research is mixed. Some studies have found that when corrections are detailed and include both the original mistake and the new information, people change their minds. Others have found that any corrections can undermine audience perception of credibility, which begs the question: Is printing a correction more damaging to media trust than simply withdrawing the flawed article? A third group of studies found audiences can be persuaded by corrections only when they’re predisposed to believe them.

Do educated Americans trust the government more because they read newspapers and understand the way state governments work, or is it because they’ve received more education and benefitted from the system? It’s not clear. Does trust in institutions come first and then trust in the media, or the other way around? Also not clear. Nor is it clear whether people may trust in one but not the other.

Complicating a global understanding of media trust is the fact that each country has unique media characteristics, so it’s nearly impossible to generalize across societies. For example, in the U.S., liberals trust the media more than conservatives do, while in Britain it’s the other way around, in part because many liberal readers thought the right-wing press pushed pro-Brexit views.

While the rise of pundits and talking heads in the 1980s and 1990s knocked mainstream media’s absolute authority off balance, the internet has turned it completely on its head. Journalism’s core principles include research, verification, editing and expertise. By mutual agreement with the public, these and other practices have traditionally given it the authority to present news to a general audience. But as scholars point out, those practices collide with the very structure of the internet, which relies on mass participation and individual opinion, and allows disinformation to spread around the world in milliseconds.

Katherine Grosser, a research associate at the University of Münster, argues that new additions to internet news production, such as user-generated content, user comments, the need for constant updating, and likes and sharing, also weaken readers’ belief in online news stories. And readers trust sites less when there isn’t an offline brand behind them.

Given the contours of the current online news landscape, given a fractured media and trolls and disinformation campaigns and accusations of “fake news,” how do audiences decide what news to trust?

In the Middle Ages, readers trusted information from friends or they trusted information that was familiar. That hasn’t changed. A paper published in 2014 found people trusted news more if it were endorsed by a Facebook friend they considered an opinion leader. Other research concluded that social endorsements prompted users to read stories even when those stories came from sources that users opposed ideologically. A paper published last year found fake news headlines that were familiar to readers were thought of as more accurate, even when they were obviously implausible or went against respondents’ beliefs and included warning labels that the headlines were incorrect. It seems that the segment of the population that rejects verification, the idea of objective truth and scientific methods can’t be swayed.

Solutions—the need for regulation

In the absence of real data about whether or not it’s possible to do anything about the hard core that simply rejects Enlightenment approaches to knowledge,  U.S foundations and the social media platforms are tackling the things they can tackle. They are funding media literacy training, projects that boost engagement with audiences, fact checking sites and software that can alert people to suspicious websites. Facebook is hoping Artificial Intelligence and tinkering with its algorithms will help solve its problems. Changes to the business model of Facebook—a model based on spreading outrage—are also unlikely.

The U.S. is not about to pass the kind of regulation seen in Germany or, in fact, any regulation at all. Even so, there are some common -sense ideas which could help tackle some of the problems should get bipartisan support for some of them. Holding off on publishing political news before elections has been tried most recently in Ireland and France. Restoring some of the regulations giving equal time to different political candidates might help as well.

Because of the First Amendment, truth in advertising rules do not apply to online political advertising but we do have laws requiring disclosure of the sources of political advertising and Former Federal Elections Commissioner  Ann M. Ravel is among those calling for the rules to apply to online political advertising. Standards of truth in advertising currently don’t apply to political ads but shou. She further suggests that social media companies should be  required to collect information about their advertisers and keep it in file with the government just like the “know your customer” regulations that U.S. Banks have to follow. There is a bipartisan “Honest Ads Act” introduced in October 2017 by Senators Mark Warner, Ann Klobuchar and John McCain which would mandate disclosure of who has bought advertising on social media and who was targeted. It’s currently in Committee, and unlikely to pass, but Twitter and Facebook have said they are willing to comply. In 1997, Seattle passed a law requiring organizations that accept money for political advertising  to provide information about the money’s source and the city recently required Facebook to disclose information about advertising taken out during the 2017 mayoral election.

Ravel points out that one reason we need regulation rather than voluntary compliance by companies “is that each of the platforms has come out with a different approach to the information they will provide…making it extremely confusing not just to access the information on each platform, but also making it confusing because the information provided will differ on each platform.  The need for consistent information about who is behind political communications is important to provide the knowledge needed to vote, “ Ravel says.

The kind of regulations being discussed would not address all the disinformation online or the larger problems of media trust and the post Enlightenment world we are now living in. But we can not stand back and let the social media platforms make decisions for all of us about the future of our information consumption our politics and our Democracy.

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the technology and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the Open Society Foudnation’s Global Board. She is the editor of African Muckraking: 100 years of African investigative journalism  (Jacana 2017)


Factbox: Media Trust has been debated for centuries

The question of what constitutes trustworthy information reaches back as far as the Middle Ages and also was discussed in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the expansion of printing and, therefore, publications. But it was around the time of WWII that academic research on media trust came into its own. Sociologists and political scientists wanted to understand how propaganda could be so masterfully deployed to gather public support, particularly in Germany, where it was used to spread disinformation and groom the nation for war.

Researchers decided one way to combat propaganda was to launch a media literacy campaign to educate people to spot false information. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis published articles on how to identify misinformation, as well as a list of seven propaganda devices citizens should watch out for, including name calling, selective omission of facts and persuading an audience that an opinion is widely held by the common people. The US campaigns, however, ended when the US government needed propaganda in order to persuade its citizens to support the US war effort.

In the 1950s, scholars established media trust and the effects of mass media as important areas of study that spanned a handful of fields, including political science, psychology and journalism studies. Throughout the decades, the introduction of new technologies spurred a renewed worry and more research. In the 1960s, academics were concerned about “video malaise.” Americans’ increasing dependence on television news and its cynical and negative approaches to events, they thought, would lead to a declining trust in government and its effectiveness.