Fake news just exposes the truth about us all

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” – attributed to People magazine 1998.

True? No.

This meme – attributing a rather disparaging quote by Donald Trump to an interview he supposedly conducted with People magazine in 1998 – is an example of the fake news that filled Facebook feeds internationally in the run-up to the US presidential election. Donald Trump may have said something like this at some point; but he never said it to People and there’s no evidence of him having said it anywhere else either. But despite the fact that the meme was entirely fabricated, it was shared across the globe.

Democrat campaigners and politicians have accused the spread of fake news on social media sites such as Facebook to be partially responsible for the loss of the election. Buzzfeed found viral fake election news significantly outperformed genuine news sources about the same subject in the run-up to the opening of the polls. And Mark Zukerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, has pledged to address the issue of fake news on the site, after initially dismissing claims that fake news swayed the election as ‘crazy’. Today President Obama said in regards to fake news: “We have a problem.”

But is he correct? Is fake news a powerful enough tool for campaigners to swing election votes their way? Perhaps. But I would argue not. Why? Well, because of what is known in academic circles as ‘The Daily Me.’

Essentially, The Daily Me is a term referencing how we, as digital users, access news within our daily lives. In a world where time is scarce and information sources are many and varied, most of us social media and smartphone users choose to focus on what interests us and what reinforces our own beliefs. We tailor our news choices by clicking on the links that correlate with our leanings and interests. We do not click on links that we believe not to be valid or true. Facebook and Apple are just two of numerous technology companies that have exploited this by designing algorithms to learn and replicate user choices – pushing similar content out to the individual user based on stories they have clicked on in the past.

The criticism of individually tailored news feeds is it narrows user margins. By streamlining content to only include items the algorithm considers of interest to the individual, broader perspectives and differing opinions are not included, meaning the ‘news’ that person is fed constantly reinforces the notion that their values, interests and opinions are the most widely-held within their society, the most important and the most valid.

This kind of positive reinforcement also occurs within social groups in online spaces. Mostly your friends in social networks like Facebook will be friends who hold similar values and have similar interests to your own. So, while a few of my friends on Facebook shared the unflattering Trump meme, there was no sign on my feed of any negative Clinton news – real or fake. That’s because most of my friends, like me, were rooting for a Democratic win.

And this is already old news. Those who did not want Britain to leave the EU were secure in the notion we would stay. That’s partly down to the silent element who did not tell anyone which way they would vote. But it’s also partly down to the positive reinforcement of our peers – when we look around and talk about politics online, our opinions are, in the main, reflected by our peer group. But if Stay campaigners had stepped out of their peer group to analyse how Brexit was being discussed online by those who were backing the Leave campaign, they would have seen similar passion, positive reinforcement and news sharing in favour of leaving the EU. We are becoming much less tolerant of differing opinions and dissenting voices are much easier to dismiss online than they are in real life. As a result, not only are our viewpoints narrowed, but our beliefs and expectations are also streamlined.

So those who shared the fake news were not deliberately duping their friends – instead they were positively reinforcing the messages that they believed to be true. Facebook and other social media platforms have replaced official news sites in many people’s lives. They amalgamate news and stories in one place, making it easier for a user to get the information they are interested in without having to go to several official sources. That’s how fake news has become a problem – social media may be the viewing platform, but it is not officially the publisher and as a result it has not got the responsibilities of verification and fact-checking carried by an official media outlet. But users have not taken on the role of fact-checking either. And thanks to the Daily Me, verification or scrutiny over the reliability of a source is often overlooked due to the dodgy item reinforcing a held opinion or belief.  As a result, a ton of fake news and inaccurate propaganda can flood social media and be widely shared without being checked or removed.

There is also the element of drama which helps fake news do the rounds. Buzzfeed’s research showed that real news was overlooked in favour of fake. Why? Most likely because the fake news was far more interesting and exciting. Who wants to hear about tax incentives, foreign policy and education reform when you could be reading about double-dealing, sex scandals and murder? We have an insatiable appetite for the unseemly – good news is nice, bad news sells.

When I was editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express a reader posted on our Facebook page asking about a police presence at a house in the patch. Before we even got the calls into the police press office there were people responding to the query making claims about child sex abuse, murder of a four-year-old and more. It was shocking how Facebook users made claims as though they were fact. We quickly got a statement from police – there was no child death, no sex allegation, it was a domestic incident and a man had been arrested for common assault. But still the rumours continued. People simply ignored the truth of the matter and continued to speculate and repeat wild untruths as though they were fact. It struck me that they simply didn’t want to know the truth. The truth was dull. It did not give them someone thing to talk and gossip about, it did not give them reason to draw their attention away from a dull afternoon at work, what they wanted was scandal and drama – so when we didn’t provide it, they made it up themselves.

And that’s the scary thing about the Daily Me. And that’s where Obama is correct in saying ‘we have a problem’. We are living in a world where a reality TV star is about to move into the White House. People don’t want truth and they don’t want the daily grind. We want to be shocked and we want to be excited. Online we create a virtual reality of the world around us and that reality reinforces our beliefs and justifies our behaviours. And that’s where the problem lies. Fake news didn’t win the election, it just exposed the way we are.

Takeover of the trolls: how newspapers can shake off the haters

Troll

Trolls:  The bane of many a news site

As a former editor I know that one of the biggest daily headaches in the newsroom is reader comments on website stories and social media.

Got a controversial issue?  If so, you can guarantee it’ll be made ten times more controversial by the people behind the curtain of the web who have their say without saying who they are.

So with all the ‘trolling’, ‘hating’ and inane backbiting that can go on at the end of news reports, why allow comments at all?

Well, despite the problems they can cause, reader comments add value in a variety of ways:

– Allowing readers to comment on stories gives them ownership of an issue and therefore ownership of the newspaper title providing the stage for debate – in a sense it makes the news site more important to the readers – making them more likely to return.
– Reader comments sometimes give a human voice which couldn’t be shown in a story for whatever reason. Not all comments lack value, instead some can really shed light on how a story or issue has affected a real person. And sometimes this can allow for follow-up stories with that user too.
– Stories with comments, controversial or not, get more clicks and  hits than stories without. They generate discussion, debate and downright outrage, and all of that gets  other people clicking to read the unfolding drama. The most unlikely stories can find themselves at the top of the web hits list just because of the comments left by website users. Popular stories mean popular sites and more advertising revenue as a result.

Of  course, this all happens on news providers’ social media sites as well – but the beauty of website comments is  that they ‘belong’ to that newspaper. Those readers have made the effort to create an account and log in to that website in order to have their say – that effort is invaluable not only in terms of advertising revenue, but also in terms of loyalty; getting people to sign in almost allows a newspaper to claim that person as their own and, more than ever before, having loyal online readers is important.

So how can newspapers make the most of online comments and balance the headache of irrelevant or legally dodgy comments with the rewards of allowing readers a space to have their say?

One of the biggest factors causing problems for websites is the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. Allowing people to choose usernames which don’t reveal who they are means users feel they can be totally honest, therefore prompting more people to join the conversation. Unfortunately it also means many of those comments stray from the realms of honesty to something much more extreme – confrontational, angry, insulting and so OTT that their authors couldn’t possibly believe what they are writing…could they??

For this reason, according to a podcast featured on www.journalism.co.uk , the Chicago Sun Times and Reuters have both banned commenting from their websites and The Huffington Post now only allows people to sign in via social media – meaning their identity is more transparent. The latter solution sounds a great way around the issue – but social media does not necessarily garner comments of a higher quality. Currently links to stories on regional papers’ Facebook pages tend to generate more comments than stories on the news sites themselves due to the ease of interaction (users are usually logged into the social network already, removing the  obstacle to commenting). But even with user identities revealed, a lot of comments on newspaper social media sites are abusive or irrelevant and many also seem to be  uninformed – with people forming opinion without clicking through to see the full story on the website. While the latter would not be an issue if social media was the way into commenting on a news site, it is hard to see how the former issues would be different. And then of course there is the problem of ownership again – social media log ins, even onto a newspaper site, take the hits and loyalty value of that log in away from the news provider and back to the social media provider.

Most newspapers publish stories to allow ‘post moderated’ comments on their sites – meaning comments do not have to be checked by a moderator before they appear. Much of the time it seems comments left by the public are rarely looked at by journalists following publication and legally it’s only comments which are seen to be defamatory or legally unsound that need to be taken down. Dodgy comments are usually flagged up by website users rather than newspaper staff – and this again raises the issue of whose role it is to ‘police’ comments.  With the huge amount of work already resting at the feet of reporters in modern newsrooms the extra job of moderating online comments would be virtually impossible to manage.

In fact, it could be a full-time job checking and responding to online comments – but unfortunately this is a  position which most editors don’t have the budget to fill. Those who do have web editors usually have them tied up with troubleshooting, publishing and promotion – again time and money does not allow for a full-time web discussion moderator.

But, with more and more newspapers building their communities online rather than in print, perhaps this is a role that needs to be considered for the future. Turning the comments  from a one-way response into a conversation with the news provider can surely only strengthen that bond with readers – as already done by national titles like the Guardian. Taking a firm stance on policing the quality of comments would also show people what was expected and hopefully, in turn, generate comments with a greater value. There is opportunity, if managed correctly, for regional papers to become the social voice of the community they serve – providing discussion points and chairing the ensuing debate both on websites and social media. But this can only be done if managers recognise the value this could add to their product and invest in the staff to make the model work effectively.

The Will Cornick dilemma

Some news stories stay with you as a journalist long after the media frenzy has left the building and moved onto the next hot topic. For each journalist there are incidents and happenings that are the backbone of your career. A defining moment. The killing of Ann Maguire was one such story for me.

Ann Maguire
Ann Maguire

That Monday (April 28, 2014) I was leading the newsdesk for the Yorkshire Post  and the Yorkshire Evening Post.

It was about 2pm and I was talking to the YEP crime reporter about a story he was working on when someone came over and said ‘A teacher has been stabbed to death at a school in Leeds’.

It was unbelievable.  The world stopped for a second. That moment is a snapshot in time for me – but in reality we had to move exceptionally fast. It was important that we covered this with accuracy, depth and with our team always remembering that we were THE media outlet for Leeds – the ones who would continue to report long after the national media’s interest had waned. We needed to be first with the news but we also needed to act with sensitivity and integrity.

It transpired that Mrs Maguire, a well-liked Spanish teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, had been killed in front of her class by a 16-year-old pupil. The boy had been arrested, but not charged, meaning legally we could name him. Some of the nationals chose to follow  this course. And the boy’s name was also being bandied about on social media, meaning anyone with the interest and the internet to hand would be able to find out his identity with just the click of a button.

So why did we choose not to name and was it the right thing to do? I believe it was. The teen was a child in the  eyes of the law. And, until a court hearing found him guilty just yesterday (November 3, 2014), he was an innocent one at that. At the time of the killing we sat down and discussed ‘to name or not to name’? Legally we could have followed in the footsteps of the Sun and named him. But morally it felt wrong. Yes, we will have lost some web traffic to other sites which named the defendant, but we chose to take that hit. A better hit than damaging the reputation and standing of the newspaper titles in the communities which they served and which they continued to serve long after the nationals went away.

William Cornick
William Cornick

So we covered the story online and in print. We promoted our coverage through social media too, but we did not name the person responsible. Instead we celebrated the life of an influential, highly regarded and much loved woman. We opened a book of condolence and printed tributes in the papers. It felt like the right response to a terrible situation which would resonate in Leeds for a long time to come. Now, six months on, William Cornick has been jailed for killing Ann Maguire. And I still feel satisfied that we made the right choice.

 

Update – added November 13, 2014: This is an interesting insight into the legal side of things from Hold the Front Page’s legal column.

 

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