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.*
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