You will find no fake news on these pages or on our websites.
There. I’ve said it. It is deeply unsettling that anyone needs to point out that making up news is bad: Nevertheless, it needs saying: We do not make things up; and we do all we can to keep made up stuff from our readers.
To be sure, fake news is hardly new or novel. Our elections turned nasty and dishonest as soon as George Washington announced his retirement. But the velocity, scale and potential financial rewards of fooling some of the people some of the time have become overwhelming.
Stories that used to take days or weeks to reach thousands of people can now reach millions in minutes.
The online site Buzzfeed produced an excellent analysis that found made up stories performed famously on Facebook, better, they found, than real news.
Stories that falsely claimed Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, that Hillary Clinton was implicated in the murder of an FBI agent and that Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS all performed better on Facebook than big stories from traditional newsrooms. One man was so moved by a fake news story that he felt the need to open fire on a Washington pizzeria.
Lying online has become a growth industry with few barriers to entry. A group of Macedonian teenagers famously made a tidy sum this year by operating a fake news factory spinning out scores of fake elections stories. We now have a Lying Industrial Complex.
The hungry audience is growing. During this election year, 44 percent of American adults said they relied on Facebook for their news.
The presidential election was so close that some have even asserted that the outcome can only be explained by voters made delusional by fake news. Coincidentally, the fake news did seem to help Donald Trump, a fact that has elevated – or debased? – the discussion to yet another wearisome partisan squabble.
That’s too bad. American democracy works only if Americans are equipped with reliable information verified by the power of journalistic standards.
Thomas Jefferson, himself the target of nasty if not fake news, once argued that given the choice between having a government or having newspapers, he’d take the paper (thanks, Mr. President!). “I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them,” he wrote a friend in 1787.
Jefferson would have placed the responsibility on readers to satisfy themselves about the authenticity of their news sources. I agree. We all have a duty not only to be informed but to know who is informing us. But it’s not so easy in the digital age.
Our journalists work very hard to verify the accuracy of everything we publish. In addition to having a strong corps of fact-obsessed editors, we have standing practices designed to minimize the risk of error. We even require that reporters make it as clear as possible to people what we are writing about them before we publish.
In our project on sex abuse by doctors, we sent registered letters to each doctor who was named in our reporting to make sure they were aware and to offer an opportunity to hear their side of the story. We have had no substantive complaint about accuracy. We’re not perfect, but we don’t publish lies.
Sadly, people tend to accept much on face value from their shallow stream of social media. Twitter, Google, and especially Facebook have usurped the traditional journalistic role in deciding what news you see. This is largely a good thing, but these new journalism platforms have been loath to assume an editor’s duty to accuracy. This has caused a mess.
When people share or refer to something they read, they say they saw it on Facebook, not that they learned something from the AJC or The Washington Post or the deeply unreliable Real News Right Now or the nonexistent Denver Guardian.
And let’s be honest. People have lost loyalty to the mainstream media even as research shows an unprecedented longing for real news. They are shopping around.
Even after it had become clear that Facebook was complicit in incubating the Lying Industrial Complex, the social media giant at first oddly shrugged its shoulders over the whole thing.
Thankfully, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has reversed course.
On Thursday, Adam Mosseri, the Facebook executive responsible for the newsfeed, blogged that Facebook will begin working with fact-checking organizations such as Snopes, Factcheck.org, and PolitiFact (an AJC partner) to verify news articles. Facebook said it will use the widely respected journalistic nonprofit Poynter Institute to help select the fact checkers.
These fact checkers will flag sketchy stories as “disputed” in your newsfeed. They will link to an explanation of the problem.
More damning, Facebook will employ its mightiest weapon – its algorithm – to punish fake newsies. This should undercut their financial incentives for tricking us.
And if you try to share a disputed story, Facebook will go all Jiminy Cricket on them and ask if you really want to share it.
Facebook is not alone. Slate.com has developed a Chrome browser extension called “This Is Fake.” Slate says the tool will allow users to “identify, debunk, and—most importantly — combat the proliferation of bogus stories.”
Once installed, items identified as fake in your Facebook feed will be flagged. A red banner will appear with a link to an article that explains why the story was flagged. Also, the tool also will flag stories from websites Slate has identified as fake news factories.
Slate’s definition of fake news is illuminating. They mean “stories that are designed to look like news articles but whose key ‘facts’ have been invented by their authors — and persuasively debunked by reputable sources.”
Slate excludes “propaganda, bias, and misleading headlines are all issues worthy of attention in a broader examination of the media” or “factual errors that established media organizations routinely make in the course of their work, whether through honest error or negligence.”
These are excellent guidelines. Stories and articles with which we disagree aren’t fake, no matter how stupid or lame. This is the stuff of civic debate.
My point, generally speaking, is that lies are bad. We can agree on that, right?
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