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French President Emmanuel Macron has concluded that government legislation is the antidote for “fake news.”

Before going further, it’s worth stepping back and considering what constitutes fake news.

I see two components to the equation.

First, you have the source. Does the media property practice the tenets of journalism? Does the media property have a track record of fair reporting?

Or is the media property essentially a website assembled by a disenfranchised student who happens to be gifted in the ways of social media … or perhaps the media property was created by a third party with a single vested interest that has nothing to do with journalism.

The second component involves the actual content published by the media property. Does it tell an accurate story supported by a mix of facts, anecdotes and observations?

Of course legitimate media properties can publish inaccurate stories, and non-credible media properties can publish accurate stories. And just to ensure the topic is worthy of a discussion moderated by Plato, both types of media properties can publish stories that are 90 percent true — with the remaining 10 percent not exactly inaccurate, but subjective.

Right, there’s more gray area here than Reykjavik in January.

What happened to good old-fashioned propaganda? Isn’t that really what we’re talking about? When an organization puts forth biased, misleading or flat wrong information favorable to its cause (like “Russian Beyond the Headlines” depicted in the hero image).

In short, it didn’t serve President Trump’s purpose. He couldn’t blast The New York Times and CNN and The Washington Post for spewing propaganda. That’s not going to play with the proletariat.

But “fake news.” Now we’ve got a sound bite that hits the right chord.

Back to the French approach, President Macron has decided to address “fake news” when it counts, during the French presidential election. In other words, the rules governing the dissemination of online content during the election frame will be different than other times.  As he shared with Reuters,

“There will be increased transparency requirements for internet platforms regarding sponsored content, with the aim of making public the identity of those who place the ads and also limiting the amount of them.”

Furthermore, judges will have the power to delete content, close a user’s content or block access to a website in cases of emergencies.

Personally, I like the idea of specifically targeting fake news during elections. This way, if you periodically overstep into civil liberties, at least the ends justify the means with the voting public gaining a better noise-to-signal ratio.

But good luck with transparency in sponsored content. The French government will need to form a new intelligence agency chartered with following the money from each piece of sponsored content to a non-profit called “Global Talk For a Better World,”  owned by a shell company with funding from a Russian Oligarch. By the time you’ve unraveled the bread crumbs, “Cultures Unite” has sprung to life.

I continue to believe that going after the bad guys will not solve the problem. The barriers of entry to the propaganda game in today’s digital world are too low.

Instead, if we circle back to the two components that constitute fake news — the credibility of the source and what’s actually published — we need to consider ways that make it easier for people to judge the credibility of the source.  Because the data suggests that the vast majority of people either don’t take the time or don’t have the skills to evaluate the legitimacy of a media property.

 

 

Consider an exercise conducted at Stanford, in which a mix of fact checkers, historians and students were asked to compare two websites and make a judgment call on the one they deemed more reliable.

One site represented the American Academy of Pediatrics and the other came from the American College of Pediatricians, each looking at the issue of bullying.

 

 

At first blush, they look similar. However, the Academy has 64,000 members and a paid staff of 450, while the College has 200 – 500 members, one full-time employee and has been criticized for controversial (super conservative) positions.

Here’s how the data plays out.

 

 

Once you get past the fact checkers, the data delivers a sobering indictment. You can chalk up the results from students as impetuous youth, but even 50 percent of the historians perceived the College equal to or better than the Academy.

It goes to show that when it comes to online content, if you look official and “smell” official, a large percent of people will conclude that you are official.

I suppose this cuts to the punch line.

No matter what legislation the French government puts in place or rules FTC enacts in its quest for transparency, if people don’t take the time to understand the source of the content for context, it doesn’t matter.

The bad guys will win.


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