Fake News: The Post Truth Era

By Taylor Phillips

On March 16, we attended a panel called “The Impact of Fake News.” It featured a panel of journalists from several respected news sources who discussed the “fake news” phenomenon and how social media and technology perpetuate falsehoods in our daily news intake. Panelists included:

  • Alex Kantrowitz – Senior Technology Reporter at BuzzFeed
  • Jon Swartz – San Francisco Bureau Chief at USA Today
  • Katie Brenner – Technology Reporter at The New York Times
  • Matt Ransoff – Editorial Director at CNBC

The Q&A-style panel explored topics such as where fake news comes from, how social media and technology have bolstered it, and its impact on the media today.

What is “Fake News?”

According to the panelists, fake news is any story that is written to be false in order to mislead, misdirect or misinform. With fake news, there is no attempt at truthfulness and no effort to make the story real.

Fake news can often be deceiving. BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz coined the term “The Mermaid,” which represents a news story that looks good on the surface, but once you dive deeper it gets a little fishy.

New York Times’ Katie Brenner noted that a columnist with an opinion is not fake news. Fake news is also not to be confused with bad journalism. Just because you don’t like what a story says, doesn’t mean it is fake news, Brenner said.

USA Today’s Jon Swartz said that there have never been more questions about the authenticity of media than in the last few years. Long-standing, credible news sources such as CNN, the New York Times and NBC News have had their reliability questioned by authoritative figures, including the president himself.

With actual fake news plaguing our social media channels, the invalidation of these reliable sources may have lasting effects on our news system and society.

How has technology enabled fake news?

 With social media channels like Facebook encouraging people to share content, no matter the source, the platform has become an aggregator of fake news. Alex Kantrowitz noted that as Facebook continues to optimize its interface for time, only presenting you with the news and information it thinks you want to see, it becomes a perfect petri dish for confirmation bias.

Kantrowitz suspected that users often see and share articles on Facebook solely based on the headline, without even clicking on the story. This subjects Facebook users to sensationalism. Sensationalism is the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.

According to the constitution of Facebook, also known as the “Zuck Manifesto,” Mark Zuckerberg agrees that false and misleading information is a problem, and the company is working on ways to minimize sensationalism and the reach of fake news.

For starters, Kantrowitz said, the tech company is no longer claiming neutrality, and is beginning to embrace its role in media. In fact, Facebook recently hired former NBC News correspondent and CNN prime-time host Campbell Brown to lead a news partnership team, in which she will help journalists and organizations work more closely and effectively with the social media site.

Kantrowitz said that while Facebook has not yet earned our trust in its commitment against fake news, Mark Zuckerberg has shown that his desire to take on the issue is earnest, and we are only just starting to see the implications.

Fake News & Politics:

President Donald Trump has taken a particular liking to these social media platforms, using Twitter to promote his political campaign and connect with millions of Americans.

Katie Brenner listed a few claims Trump has made via Twitter, including the accusation that several credible news organizations publish fake news. As a result of these accusations, Brenner said that there has been degradation in the perceived credibility of the news these sources are publishing.

Kantrowitz said that some reporters take these labels as a badge of honor, and consider such accusations laughable. But while mainstream media may be laughing it off, others are taking the statements seriously, while turning to less credible news sources for their information.

Kantrowitz said that our country is better off when the president and the press interact. The role of media is to be combative, acting as a watchdog to the government, and to keep the people informed of its actions. To dismantle that relationship tears at a check-and-balance system that has been in place for centuries. This antagonism is not good for the country and weakens confidence in our government and its institutions.

So what can we do to stop fake news?

As mentioned previously, Facebook is trying to end the spread of misinformation. It is hoped that recent hire of former CNN host Campbell Brown will smooth over relations with the media. In addition, users are starting to see pop-up windows appear when third-party fact checkers like Snopes.com or Associated Press have disputed the article they are about to share. 

Katie Brenner said that Twitter as a company has been starkly silent on the issue, but even though it tends to be a perpetuator of fake news, people are also using the platform to call out inaccuracies.

Kantrowitz reminded us that for credible journalists, writing a fake news story is career suicide. It is not in their or their publication’s best interest to post deliberately false information. As consumers, we can do our part by researching the author, the publication and news itself to make sure the information is authentic and true before hitting share. And as PR professionals, we should be especially mindful of the issues raised by the panel, and continue to track the fake news conversation as it continues.