The New News Strategy? How the Panic Over Fake News Could Undermine the News

There seems to be a pattern evolving around concerns over fake news – one that runs counter to more conventional expectations. Most people expect that raising concerns over fake news might actually lead to improvements in search, platforms, regulation, or consumer behavior that improves the quality and diversity of news. However, the opposite might be unfolding.

The story begins with the panic over fake news. It is a panic since most research on the actual use of online news suggests that people see multiple sources and most often check news that they see as questionable but important, such as by using search. This panic over fake news has been fueled by a focus on the production of fake news. It is indeed produced albeit this phenomenon is not new – that is one reason why search engines were invented. But far less attention has been directed at its consumption. When you look systematically at how Internet users consume news, such as information about politics, it is clear that the impacts of fake news are largely mitigated.*

How Panic is Undermining News

However, the mainstream media continue to promote the idea of fake news, with mainstream news being the source of truth and fact, to the degree that politicians, regulators, and the public have become increasingly concerned, pressing online platforms to ‘do something’ about it. Internet platforms have done so by raising quite dramatically the prominence of mainstream news sources when people search for news online.

As a consequence, when you go online for news about what is going on in the world, you are increasingly likely to be steered to the headline news of the mainstream news media. If you wish to go beyond the headline news, you find yourself asked to pay for a subscription to go behind their paywall. This has already proven so effective that even academics are beginning to think that subscription services are seeing a renaissance of sorts. However, this increase is being driven by the platforms and news aggregators prioritizing mainstream news headlines, to avoid the charge of promoting fake news. Thus, the concern over fake news is essentially creating advertising for subscription news services, with more providers moving to pay walls, and existing subscription services raising their rates, doubling them in some cases.

So the Internet is becoming less of a source for diverse news as stories in the long tail are pushed behind the headlines, and more of a source for the most popular headline news – the same news you hear on radio and TV. Will this undermine online first news outlets? I believe it already has done so.

Therefore, I am worried that panic over fake news is leading us to no news beyond the major headline stories that leave so much news uncovered. The thrust of actual research on the use of online news should undermine the panic over fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, but journalists don’t read social science, and the story of fake news serves their interests.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex set of developments, but I believe this captures a pattern that is not being identified in the current fake news narrative. I am a news fan, subscribing to multiple print newspapers and an avid consumer of online news, which has been so complementary to the print news. If we recognize this tendency, we can hack through the headlines, and search for specific topics and information, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself walled off from more information by pay services.

Let me know if you think this is wrong, fake, or exaggerated, let me know. I fear I am right about this, but am open to be proven wrong, and think systematic research on this trend would be of value.

 

*Here is a blog about this panic: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688 and here is an article about how few users are susceptible to fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles, and why: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. Online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3316768

 

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. 

Why?

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.

Notes

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. 

Why?

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.