Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Finding an answer to fake news

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast March 02, 2017

Untrue stories on social media are the real concern, says Kate Bulkley

If you work in TV news, it must seem like a crazy old world right now. The term ‘fake news’ is being hurled around by both ends of the political spectrum, delivering gut punches to a fourth estate already under siege from a deteriorating financial model thanks to free news on the internet.

‘Fake news’ should be a term for news that is untrue, yet it has been used by people – from US president Donald Trump to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – to describe something they don’t like, or don’t agree with, and don’t want reported.

The good news is that there is a backlash among high-profile news defenders. In the US, Republican senator John McCain has spoken out on the importance of an adversarial press providing checks and balances against people in power, and the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee is holding an inquiry into the topic.

A Reuters Institute study published last summer found that 28% of 18 to 24 year-olds cited social media as their principal source for news, compared with just 24% for TV.

The situation has attracted the attention of the European Commission, whose digital chief Andrus Ansip recently warned Facebook and other social media companies that they must do more to counter fake news or face action from Brussels.

I have been a journalist for decades, including television news for several years. Like most journalists, I know that the most important stories come from asking difficult, uncomfortable questions and from looking where others may not want you to look.

So I was enthralled by a recent Royal Television Society event where Facebook director of partnerships Patrick Walker said that the largest social media site is rolling out fact-checking of news stories, adding a ‘disputed by third parties’ notice to questionable material, as well as training journalists to use Facebook tools and helping to improve digital literacy.

But the mood in the room, including from The Economist editor Anne McElvoy, was that this is far from enough. “If you are serious about this, get off the fence and support public interest journalism,” she said.

The short answer is that Facebook doesn’t see itself as a media company and is not prepared to start ‘writing cheques to journalists’. Facebook is ‘only’ a platform with an algorithm that it tweaks to suit its business purposes.

Perhaps the Facebook business model is the real problem. Walker agreed that the site is aware that the “filter bubble” of only showing users what comes through the main algorithmic filter of friends and family gives a distorted view – the so-called ‘echo chamber’ of only seeing what you already believe.

“One thing we are looking at is offering people an array of views on a topic so they have a more rounded view of something,” he said. But, he added: “We have to be careful about what we are trying to solve. Is there any great era of truth that we are comparing this to?”

Was it ever thus? Perhaps there has always been fake news and great untruths, but the 21st century bit is the power and reach of the biggest social media platforms and the speed at which lies and misinformation can be viralised around a community and the world. That is a big difference, and a big worry.

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