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Fake News Is A Meaningless Term, And Our Obsession Over It Continues To Harm Actual News


Many people forget now, but in the wake of the 2016 election, it was mainly those opposed to Donald Trump who were screaming about "fake news." They wanted an explanation for what they believed was impossible -- and one thing that many, especially in the journalism field focused on, were the made up stories that got shared wildly on Facebook. At the time, we warned that nothing good would come from so many people blaming "fake news" for the election, and I think it's fair to say we were correct on that. President Trump quickly co-opted the phrase and turned it into a mantra directed at any news story about him or his administration that he didn't like.

And, of course, the term was always meaningless. It encompassed such a broad spectrum of things -- from completely made up stories, to stories with bad sourcing or an error, to stories that were spun in a way people didn't like or found misleading, to stories with a minor mistake, to just stories someone didn't like. But each of those is very, very different, and the way that different news organizations respond to these issues can be very different as well. For example, professional publications that make mistakes will publish corrections when they discover they've made an error. Sometimes they don't do so well, and they don't always do a very good job of publicizing the correction -- but they do strive to get things right. That's different than publications that simply put up purely fake stuff, just for the hell of it. And there really aren't that many such sites. But by lumping them all in as fake news, people start to blur the distinctions, and think that basically everyone is just making shit up all the time.

That culminates in a new report claiming (though I question the methodology on this...) that 72% of Americans surveyed believe that traditional news sources "report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading." The breakdown by political affiliation is that 53% of Democrats think this happens "a lot" or "sometimes," 79% of Independents, and 92% of Republicans. Of course, if you dug into the numbers, I'm guessing that the Democrats would point to Fox News as their proof, while the Republicans would point to MSNBC, CNN and maybe the NY Times/Washington Post.

Of course, most of this is silly. Some of it is the fact that the vast majority of news consumers don't know the difference between the hard news divisions of these news organizations and the "commentary" side of these organizations, with the latter being more in the entertainment, bomb throwing side of things, and who stake out ridiculous positions because that's what they're paid to do. The actual news orgs all do actually tend to want to do good reporting. They aren't always good at that -- in fact, they're often bad at it. But that's very, very different than deliberately spreading "fakes, false or purposely misleading" news.

However, simply lumping mistakes or a spin you dislike on coverage as "fake news" doesn't help. It just makes things more ridiculous and gets people up in arms more. And, again, just as we predicted, with the push to clamp down on "fake news," the end result is actually suppressing news. Facebook -- which was the main target of the whining from the anti-Trump world on "fake news" -- basically threw up its hands and said it would decrease all the news that people saw. And that means that every publication that was heavily relying on Facebook for traffic (i.e., nearly every publications except for us at Techdirt who ignored Facebook), is now getting slammed.

Slate tried to get news orgs to talk about how much their Facebook traffic dropped and no one would talk, so it revealed its own traffic decline from Facebook, dropping from 28 million clicks in January 2017 (about 1/3 of its total traffic) down to less than 4 million in May 2018 (now representing 11% of its traffic) -- a drop of 87%. The site claims Facebook traffic has dropped 55% alone in 2018. Again, we deliberately avoided "playing the Facebook game" over the last decade, so the site has never been a significant source of traffic. However, for comparison purposes, I checked, and Facebook represented 2.7% of our own traffic in January of 2017, and 2.4% of our traffic in May of 2018 -- basically no different, but also close to a rounding error.

But really, what this comes down to is that the whole "fake news" claim has always been silly and the calls to "do something" about fake news have really only served to make things worse. Using such a non-descriptive term has given lots and lots of people an excuse to mock or ignore any news or news organizations they dislike. And it's given an excuse to Facebook to step back from the news business altogether. None of that makes the public better news consumers or more media literate. All it does is keep people in their silos getting angry at each other.


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