Using "fake news" to squeeze clickbait ad pennies from the gullible is nothing new, nor is using the press to spread propaganda, but social media now allows these rumors and lies to spread at a troublesome clip.
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Facebook, Google, and Reddit are tackling the problem as best they know how, but using technology to block content or label it as "fake news" is a problematic solution. How do you stop misinformation and preserve free speech? It's no simple task even for the most advanced artificial intelligence, which will inevitably showcase the biases of its human coders.
The better approach is to improve media literacy among the general public so they are empowered to distinguish fact from fiction. This is the focus of the new $14 million News Integrity Initiative, which aims to "advance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world, and to better inform the public conversation."
The initiative is a partnership between international partners including Facebook, Mozilla, the CUNY School of Journalism, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Craig Newmark, you might be asking yourself? The guy you go to when you want to find a gently used box spring in your neighborhood? What does he have to do with journalism?
"I'm just a news consumer. I'm an outsider. I'm an old-school nerd. I just want news I can trust," Newmark told PCMag during the latest episode of our Q&A series, The Convo. "In high school history, I learned that a trustworthy press acting in good faith is the immune system of democracy."
But what exactly is this "fake news" threatening democracy? Most people would define it as content that cynically or purposefully misinforms the public for devious ends (be it profit or politics), while the president and his most dedicated supporters use it to label critical coverage. This divergence is an example of America's gaping political divide getting in the way of fighting a problem that is bigger than partisan politics—this is not a one-sided affair, as examples of obviously "fake news" can be found on the right and left.
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We need not let these divisions poison the pursuit of a trustworthy press—there are features of quality journalism that honest people from all points along the political spectrum can agree on. We can start with things like transparency and a dedication to reporting on verifiable facts (or admitting when an idea is unknown or unknowable).
"The ideal is that people in good faith will work together to start identifying what's good news," Newmark says. "Projects like The Trust Project kind of set the standards of what working in good faith means—things like having a code of ethics; listening to people of all sorts; and then when you do make a mistake, you fix it.
"And then beyond that, you need the watchdogs—people like PolitiFact and Snopes. Their job is to help everyone understand when news reports are not in good faith, to call BS on the bad stuff while encouraging the good stuff," he says. "I don't want a platform [like Facebook] to be an arbiter of truth—that's really a big deal—I don't want the platform to tell me what's good or bad. I want news professionals operating in good faith and in a transparent way to say 'here's stuff done in good faith, here's stuff not used in good faith.'"
It's up to democratic open societies to create transparent institutions that can definitively separate fact from fiction. We are free to disagree on the best ways forward, but before we even begin to do that, we need to have a consensus on what's already happened. Good luck, Craig!
The Convo is PCMag's interview series hosted by features editor Evan Dashevsky (@haldash). Each episode is broadcast live on PCMag's Facebook page, where viewers are invited to ask guests questions in the comments. Each episode is then made available on our YouTube page and available for free as an audio podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes or on the podcast platform of your choice.