Fake News v the Fact Checkers

by Ian Kirby

In the era of Fake News, sorry FAKE NEWS!!!!, it is apparently becoming more difficult to differentiate between what is real and what is not.

Notoriously fraudulent fake new stories such as the Pizzagate scandal, which attempted to link Hilary Clinton and senior democrats to a human trafficking ring, have spread like wildfire. It even provoked a shooting.

And the phrase is now so much a part of common parlance that both Jeremy Corbyn and, of course, Donald Trump routinely use it when faced with awkward questions.

The 2016 US Presidential Election was the first in history where more people said they got their news from social media than traditional sources like newspapers, radio and television. However, Facebook’s own algorithms couldn’t filter the true from the false, the biased from the unvarnished.

In the wake of the American election, Facebook announced it was considering new safeguards to check for fake news in people’s feeds.

This has provided an unexpected boost to American, and to a lesser extent British, newspapers and mainstream television channels, who have been fighting a bitter battle against online upstarts such as Guido Fawkes in the UK and Breitbart over in America.

In the battle against Fake News, an old weapon has been revived, the fact checker. These careful, conscientious librarian types were the hidden worker bees in American newsrooms, patiently substantiating dates and facts.

In Britain, Channel Four News’s Factcheck team (@FactCheck) has been rejuvenated online. In Australia, ABC have resurrected their team of checkers and the BBC Reality Check are using them.

That’s great, and it has been lapped up in the media pages online. However, it misses a rather obvious point – people choose where to obtain their news.

Where do you go to if you want to see leaked photos of naked celebrities or royals? Or scandalous stories about greedy businesses? Or the “real” story behind that shamed politician?

Clue: the answer isn’t the tabloid newspapers anymore. The easiest place to do that is the noisy, chaotic world of the internet.

Google’s own search data shows we are becoming more salacious every year, with searches for stolen photographs, graphic terrorist videos etc. increasing rapidly.

And in political campaigns people look to social media – where they trust the feeds of their friends – for the news they want to see.

While it is admirable for television and newspapers to seek to become more authoritative in the face of the Fake News threat, the so-called mainstream media are in fact just shouting louder to the shrinking group of people who already listen to them.

The opinion columns of the Wall Street Journal had only a modest impact on the American election. Those of The Guardian didn’t cut much sway in the EU Referendum.

Viral news, videos, infographics, rapid rebuttal, and plausible spokespeople are the tools that feed a story and help to make it go viral.

It is a sad but undeniable truth that the person who shouts loudest gets heard. It is therefore important that those who seek to expose Fake News look at some of the successful tactics the sites use – from search optimisation to social media – if the truth is to prevail.