Why the crackdown on fake news is a good thing

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Posted on September 14, 2016

Do you know that the Washington Post cranks out more than 1,200 news articles per day? The New York Times produces at least 230 articles per day. Good luck tracking them all down. Buzzfeed published 6,365 stories and 319 videos in April alone—or about 222 pieces of content per day. These are but a few of the news organizations producing so much daily content, and no human being could realistically consume it all in a day. The Internet contains a near-infinite amount of information—we just can’t keep up with it.

So what do we do? We rely on the convenience of social algorithms to tell us what matters. We pull up our Facebook mobile feed and let the miracle and science of its algorithm find the diamonds in the rough. It’s a wonderful experience. We literally have no work to do: no newspaper to flip through, no news channels to suffer through, and no photo albums to thumb through. It’s all there for us, conveniently sorted and available at a swipe of a finger. Just about everything we read has to make its way through a filter before we see it.

Think about the apps you use most on mobile. I’m willing to wager a bet that you get a lot of information through Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Facebook notoriously tweaks its news feed on a regular basis to ensure it’s properly calibrated to give you content you want to consume. Twitter finally realized that people find a raw news feel overwhelming and now uses an algorithm of its own to prioritize content it thinks you want to see. Even your search results are filtered. For sometime now Google has tailored its search results to make them more relevant to you, the user, based on your browsing and search history. All of these platforms have an incentive to give you information you want instead of the information that is the most up-to-date or relevant: their bottom line depends on it. If they fail to give you the content you want, you’ll tune out. And if you tune out, you’re one less person they can serve ads to. And if a whole lot of you start doing the same, revenues take a hit, membership numbers stagnate, and Wall Street gets cranky. So, these three digital behemoths need to give you quality content, which is a lot easier said than done.

For years, publishers have focused on producing huge volumes of content. Most of this content was (and remains) thoroughly cheap and unfulfilling. Think about the scourge of ‘click-bait’ articles that used to fill up our social feeds and rank highly in search results. The headlines were catchy—we couldn’t help but click on the link only to discover that the resulting article was barely 100 words long, and often, completely different than what the headline promised. Sadly, this type of content continues to plague the Internet. It’s a serious problem for curators like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. When this content appears in feeds or results and we click on it, only to get angry about where we landed, it diminishes the user experience.

Considering this, it makes complete sense that Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to remove this type of content, this fake news, from their feeds. The pair are joining at least 30 major news outlets—the Washington Post and The New York Times among them— to crack down on fake news articles more effectively, in the hopes of improving the quality of the information in social feeds. In some ways, it’s encouraging—even heartening—to see these major platforms recognize that as they are the primary news source for most of their consumers they should ensure a basic level of quality for the news it serves. This newly-formed network is backed by Google and is working to create a voluntary code of practice and a verification system for journalists and social media companies to ensure a basic level of integrity in news coverage. Of course, partisans of all stripes will laugh at such a statement, since news organizations are hardly seen as objective operatives. But if we can park our bias aside, most of us will concede that ‘traditional’ news outlets are bound by some journalistic standards (fact-checking, legal checks etc.) that ought to be the norm. Of course, they’re far from perfect, but they serve as a basic foundation.

We live in a world where most news breaks online. People at the site of the news event are the ones posting raw video and images online. Eyewitnesses don’t wait for a reporter to arrive on the scene before sharing what they’ve seen first-hand. Stories that would never have been reported in the pre-smartphone era now become global movements because someone took out their smartphone and captured an event or altercation. And of course, fake news and hoaxes, like everything else online, have become much more sophisticated, and tougher to crack down on.

In this context, it doesn’t help that all news looks the same in our news feeds. It can be tough to sort out the real stuff from the hoaxes. In truth, the Internet has democratized content-creation. Anyone with an Internet connect and a keyboard can become a publisher. Nothing stops me from starting a new website today, writing completely egregious or false content and publishing it to the major social platforms. Or they could write breaking stories, uncovering facts and perspectives that others can’t or unwilling to investigate. But whether or not that same piece of content should be subjected to the same filtering and standards as fact-checked and verified stories, is a matter of debate. I for one, am ok with it, even if it means traditional news outlets regain some level of clout.

However, these recent developments further entrench the shift towards a highly-filtered Internet. And cracking that filter is no easy task, especially if you’re not a pre-approved news outlet. It means, more than ever, that brands and organizations need to double-down on quality content. Stop producing content for the sake of it—focus on providing value and you may get to join the ranks of the ‘Big 30.’ And if that fails, you may need to dust off your traditional media relations skills—’traditional’ outlets may soon get a bump in clout.

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