Fake News May Trump Other Current Panics over the Internet and Social Media

I recently posted a short overview of the findings of one of our projects on fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers in The Conversation. All three are foci of panic over the potential political implications of new technologies, such as search algorithms and social media friending and de-friending mechanisms. Given the comments received and the worries expressed in those comments, the fake news panic trumps all the others – no question. 


One reason is that it is so new. The public debate over fake news only began to arise during the 2016 elections in the US, though it quickly spread internationally. I’m sure I could be corrected on that, but I believe that is roughly the case.

Secondly, the definition – to the degree that is fair to apply to this concept – is being constantly enlarged and blurred by pundits and politicians referring to more and more ‘news’ as fake. In fact, ‘fake’ is becoming an almost viral term. There are many ways to characterize much of the news, some of it is patriotic journalism, some partisan, some misinformation, some just poor reporting, etc. But more and more of the whole journalistic enterprise is being labelled as fake. But journalists are not the victim so much as among the major users of this term, increasingly characterizing mainstream media as real news versus blogging and social media as the sources of fake news. In such ways, it has become a pejorative term used to discredit the butt of the insult.

These are a few of the reasons why we did not use the term ‘fake news’ in our survey of Internet users. We asked other questions, such as how often they found wrong information on different media. That said, we found the a surprisingly large proportion of people tend to check information they believe to be suspect, such as by using a search engine or consulting other sources.

So despite the rising panic over fake news, I still believe it is under-researched and over-hyped.


Short note on our study is here.

The full report of our study is here.

Why is the panic around echo chambers, filter bubbles, and fake news?

A report we just completed for the Quello Center on ‘Search and Politics‘ concluded that most people are not fooled by fake news, or trapped by filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, those interested in politics and with some ability in using the Internet and search, generally consult multiple sources for political information, and use search very often to check information they suspect to be wrong. It is a detailed report, so I hope you can read it to draw your own conclusions. But the responses I’ve received from readers are very appreciate of the report, yet then go on to suggest people remain in somewhat of a panic. Our findings have not assuaged their fears. 


First, these threats tied to the Internet and social media appeal to common fears about technology being out of control. Langdon Winner’s book comes to mind. This is an enduring theme of technology studies, and you can see it being played out in this area. And it is coupled with underestimating the role users actually play online. You really can’t fool most of Internet users most of the time, but most people worry that way too many are fooled.

This suggests that there might also be a role played by a third person effect, with many people believing that they themselves are not fooled by these threats, but that others are. I’m not fooled by fake news, for example, but others are. This may lead people to over-estimate the impact of these problems.

And, finally, there is a tendency for communication and technology scholars to believe that political conflicts can be solved simply by improving information and communication. I remember a quote from Ambassador Walter Annenberg at the Annenberg School, where I taught, to the effect that all problems can be solved by communication. However, many political conflicts result from real differences of opinions and interests, which will not be resolved by better communication. In fact, communication can sometimes clarify the deep differences and divisions that are at the heart of conflicts. So perhaps many of those focused on filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news are from the communication and the technical communities rather than political science, for example. If only technologies of communication could be improved, we would all agree on …  That is the myth.

More information about our Quello Center report is available in a short post by Michigan State University, and a short essay for The Conversation.

Twitter Foreign Policy and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy

Recent Chinese concerns over ‘Twitter Foreign Policy” are just the tip of the iceberg on the ways in which the Internet has been enabling diplomacy to be reconfigured, for better or worse. Over a decade ago, Richard Grant, a diplomat from New Zealand, addressed these issues in a paper I helped him with at the OII.[1] Drawing from Richard’s paper, there are at least five ways in which the Internet and social media are reconfiguring diplomacy:

  1. Changing who participates in diplomacy, creating a degree of openness and transparency, for example through leaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, that puts diplomacy in the public eye, establishing an entire field of “public diplomacy”;
  2. Creating new sources of information for diplomacy, such as when mobile Internet videos become key to what is known about an event of international significance;
  3. Speeding up diplomatic processes in response to the immediacy of news about events in the online world that require more rapid responses in order to be more effective, such as in challenging misinformation;
  4. Pushing diplomacy to be more event-led, when the world knows about events that diplomats cannot ignore; and
  5. Eroding borders, such as enabling diplomats to communicate locally or globally from anywhere at any time.  th-1

These transformations do not diminish the need for diplomats to serve a critical role as intermediaries. If anything, the Internet makes it possible for diplomats to be where they need to be to facilitate face-to-face interpersonal communication, making the geography of diplomacy more, rather than less, important. However, it poses serious challenges for adapting diplomacy to a globally digital village, such as how to adapt hierarchical bureaucracies of diplomacy to respond to more agile networks, and how to best ‘join the conversation’ on social media.

[1] Richard Grant (2004), “The Democratization of Diplomacy: Negotiating with the Internet,” OII Research Report No. 5. Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1325241  Also discussed in a talk I gave last year on Mexico in the New Internet World, see: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2788392

Don’t Panic over Fake News

Fake News is a Wonderful Headline but Not a Reason to Panic

I feel guilty for not jumping on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon. It is one of the new new things in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. And because purposively misleading news stories, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, engage so many people, and have such an intuitive appeal, I should be riding this bandwagon.[1] It could be good for my own research area around Internet studies. But I can’t. We have been here before, and it may be useful to look back for some useful lessons learned from previous moral panics over the quality of information online. th-1

Fake News

Fake news typically uses catchy headlines to lure readers into a story that is made up to fit the interests of a particular actor or interest. Nearly all journalism tries to do the same, particularly as journalism is moving further towards embracing the advocacy of particular points of view, versus trying to present the facts of an event, such as a decision or accident. In the case of fake news, facts are often manufactured to fit the argument, so fact checking is often an aspect of identifying fake news. And if you can make up the facts, it is likely to be more interesting than the reality. This is one reason for the popularity of some fake news stories.

It should be clear that this phenomenon is not limited to the Internet. For example, the 1991 movie JFK captured far more of an audience than the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. Grassy Knoll conspiracy theories were given more credibility by Oliver Stone than were the facts of the case, and needless to say, his movie was far more entertaining.

Problems with Responding

There are problems with attacking the problem of fake news.

First, except in the more egregious cases, it is often difficult to definitively know the facts of the case, not to mention what is ‘news’. Many fake news stories are focused on one or another conspiracy theory, and therefore hard to disprove. Take the flurry of misleading and contradictory information around the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, or over who was responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of 2014 over a rebel controlled area of eastern Ukraine. In such cases in which there is a war on information, it is extremely difficult to immediately sort out the facts of the case. In the heat of election campaigns, it is also difficult. Imagine governments or Internet companies making these decisions in any liberal democratic nation.

Secondly, and more importantly, efforts to mitigate fake news inevitably move toward a regulatory model that would or could involve censorship. Pushing Internet companies, Internet service providers, and social media platforms, like Facebook, to become newspapers and edit and censor stories online would undermine all news, and the evolving democratic processes of news production and consumption, such as which are thriving online with the rise of new sources of reporting, from hyper-local news to global efforts to mine collective intelligence. The critics of fake news normally say they are not proposing censorship, but they rather consistently suggest that the Internet companies should act more like newspapers or broadcasters in authenticating and screening the news. Neither regulatory model is appropriate for the Internet, Web and social media.

Lessons from the Internet and Web’s Short History

But let’s look back. Not only is this not a new problem, it was a far greater problem in the past. (I’m not sure if I have any facts to back this up, but hear me out.)

Anyone who used the Internet and Web (invented in 1991) in the 1990s will recall that it was widely perceived as largely a huge pile of garbage. The challenge for a user was to find a useful artifact in this pile of trash. This was around the time when the World Wide Web was called the World Wide Wait, given the time it took to download a Web page. Given the challenges of finding good information in this huge garbage heap, users circulated urls (web addresses) of web pages that were worth reading.

A few key researchers developed what were called recommender sites, such as what Paul Resnick called Platforms for Internet Content Searches (PICS), which labeled sites to describe their content, such as ‘educational’ or ‘obscene’.[2] PICS could be used to censor or filter content, but the promoters of PICS saw them primarily as a way to positively recommend rather than negatively censor content, such as that labeled ‘educational’ or ‘news’. Positive recommendations of what to read versus censorship of what a central provider determined not fit to be read.

Of course, organized lists of valuable web sites evolved into some of the earliest search engines, and very rapidly, some brilliant search engines were invented that we use effortlessly now to find whatever we want to know online, such as news about an election.

The rise of fake news moves many to think we need to censor or filter more content to keep people from being misinformed. Search engines try to do this by recommending the best sites related to what a person is searching for, such as by analysis of the search terms in relation to the words and images on a page of content.

Unfortunately, as search engines developed, so did efforts to game search engines, such as techniques for optimizing a site’s visibility on the Web. Without going into detail, there has been a continuing cat and mouse game between search engines and content providers in trying to outwit each other. Some early techniques to optimize a site, such as embedding popular search terms in the background of a site that are invisible to the reader but visible to a search engine, worked for a short time. But new techniques for gaming the search engines are likely to be matched by refinements in algorithms that penalize sites that try to game the system. Overtime, these refinements of search have reduced the prominence of fake and manufactured news sites, for example, in the results of search engines.

New Social Media News Feeds

But what can we do about fake news being circulated on social media, mainly social media platforms such as Facebook, but also email. The problems are largely focused here since social media news provision is relatively less public, and newer, and not as fully developed as more mature search engines. And email is even less public. These interpersonal social networks might pose the most difficult problems, and where fake news is likely to be less visible to the wider public, tech companies, and governments – we hope and expect. Assuming the search engines used by social media for the provision of news get better, some problems will be solved. Social media platforms are working on it.[3] But the provision of information by users to other users is a complex problem for any oversight or regulation beyond self-regulation.

Professor Phil Howard’s brilliant research on computational propaganda at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) develops some novel perspectives on the role of social media in spreading fake news stories faster and farther.[4] His analysis of the problem seems right on target. The more we know about political bots and computational propaganda, the better prepared we are to identify it.

The Risks

My concern is that many of the purported remedies to fake news are worse than the problem. They will lead straight to more centralized censorship, or to regulation of social media as if they were broadcast media, newspapers, or other traditional media. The traditional media each have different regulatory models, but none of them are well suited to the Internet. You cannot regulate social media as if they were broadcasters, think of the time spent by broadcast regulators considering one complaint by viewers. You cannot hold social media liable for stories, as if they were an edited newspaper. This would have a chilling effect on speech. And so on. Until we have a regulatory model purpose built for the Internet and social media, we need to look elsewhere to protect its democratic features.

In the case of email and social media, the equivalent of recommender sites are ways in which users might be supported in choosing with whom to communicate. Whom do you friend on Facebook? Whom do you follow on Twitter? Whose email do you accept, open, read, or believe? There are already some sites that detect problematic information.[5] These could help individuals decide whether to trust particular sites or individuals. For example, I regularly receive email from people I know on the right, left and everywhere in between, and from the US and globally. As an academic, I enjoy seeing some, immediately delete others, and so forth. I find the opinions of others entertaining, informative and healthy, even though I accept very few as real hard news. I seldom if ever check or verify their posts, as I know some to be political rhetoric or propaganda and some to be well sourced. This is normally obvious on their face.

But I am trained as an academic and by nature, skeptical. So while it might sound like a limp squid, one of the only useful approaches that does not threaten the democratic value of social media and email, is the need to educate users about the need to critically assess information they are sent through email and by their friends and followers on social media. Choose your friends wisely, and that means not on the basis of agreement, but on the basis of trust. And do not have a blind faith in anything you read in a newspaper or online. Soon we will be just as amused by people saying they found a fake news story online as we have been by cartoons of someone finding a misspelled word on the Web.


[1] List of Fake News Sites: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/11/fake-facebook-news-sites-to-avoid.html

[2] Resnick, P., and Miller, J. (1996), ‘PICS: Internet Access Controls without Censorship’, Communications of the ACM, 39(10): 87-93.

[3] Walters, R. (2016), ‘Mark Zuckerberg responds to criticism over fake news on Facebook, Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/80aacd2e-ae79-11e6-a37c-f4a01f1b0fa1?sectionid=home

[4] Phil Howard: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/is-social-media-killing-democracy/

[5] B.S. Detector: http://lifehacker.com/b-s-detector-lets-you-know-when-youre-reading-a-fake-n-1789084038


Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

Just Pick Up the Phone

Can You Pick Up the Phone?

I’ve written about the lost art of writing with a pen. Now I feel like there is a need to explain in plain English that when you are having difficulties communicating via email or other electronic messaging systems that you can use the telephone, what you may know as your mobile.

Seriously, people never use their landline phones. And people increasingly do not use their mobile phone as a phone. Years ago, I had a speaker from Seattle, Washington, giving a talk in Oxford, and she told everyone to leave their phones on. Her argument was that no one would actually call during her talk, because people are using their phones for texting and for accessing the Internet and social media – not for talking to other people. And no one called.

This is a telephone
This is a telephone

This trend raises its head in a number of ways. For example, I keep receiving emails from colleagues, particularly administrators, who raise issues I want to discuss with them. Well, as you might guess, they do not list their phone numbers on their email, not to mention their office location. They cannot imagine that someone would want to call them, or visit their office to speak face-to-face, or they do not want to encourage such behavior. I managed to get the phone number of an administrator that practices this art of hiding from the phone and found that he not only fails to answer his phone, but also has no message on his answering service – so I do not even know if I have called the right person or phone.

Email is great. Don’t misunderstand me. I started emailing in 1974, and then we had to call a person to tell them we just sent them an email. I guess now we have to email someone to say we plan to call them. But when email fails, such as in trying to choose a restaurant or organize a meeting, think about actually talking to your colleague. It is easier and will save multiple emails.

So here is my advice, whether or not it has been solicited:

First, put your phone details on your email and blog or Web site. Be accessible.

Second, leave a message for those who call you when you are unavailable.

Third, when communication is not working, just pick up the phone.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that no media is always superior. You need to choose the right medium for the occasion. That will need to be the topic for another blog.

What Meetings Should Academics Avoid?

Colleagues will tell you not to waste your time blogging, or spending too much time doing this or that, but few ever tell you not to waste your time in meetings. In fact, they ask you to come to meetings all the time, and seldom if ever advise you not to attend a meeting, however problematic the topic or the expected likelihood of a meaningful discussion. Seeing my own colleagues on the meeting treadmill, largely of their own making, I thought I should give some unsolicited advice to the blogosphere of academics who need to have some framework for deciding what meetings to avoid.

So here are my preliminary thoughts on how to think about (avoiding) meetings that are unnecessary or otherwise a waste of time for academics on the publish, have impact, and perish road to promotion. But there are also some general rules:

  1. You can always say ‘no’ to being on a committee or taking on an administrative assignment. No competent administrator who understands scholarship would fault you.
  1. Leave as much governance and administration as possible to senior faculty, who have been promoted.
  1. Teaching trumps research, when teaching loads are reasonable. Research trumps administration and administrative meetings.
  1. Good citizenship is important, but citizenship does not overcome weak teaching or research.

That said, here is a framework to help you think about what meetings you might avoid:


Type of Meeting
Administrative Training Networking Research
Unavoidable, unless Conflicting with Higher Priority, e.g., field research, teaching Faculty Meetings; Review with Head of Unit; Required (increasing in number) Social Events for Colleagues; Introducing Yourself or Your Work to Colleagues Presentations or Evaluations of your Work; Meet to Solve a Problem or Assign Work
Avoidable, but Go Retreats, Away Days, Meetings You Call, Meetings that could talk about you or your work Topic or Skill or Procedure you Want to Learn Coffee or tea with a colleague; Meal or drinks with 2-5 colleagues Seminars, Lectures, Roundtables, Coordination of Research Projects
Should or Must Avoid Long Faculty Meetings; Routine Meetings w/o Important Items; Large Meetings Efforts of Administrators to Save Their Time; Cover Their Backside Meeting to Impress Colleagues; Talk about Other Colleagues Top Down Efforts to Promote Collaboration

I’m sure that many will disagree with my advice, or have better ideas or frameworks, so I’d like to hear them. Meeting overload is a real problem.