Fake news is the buzz term of current political parlance, but it is a term for demagogues rather than democrats, who should identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.
Trump’s presidency has exposed a challenge to editors. His clever manipulation of the term ‘fake news’ to discredit his critics is at once a masterstroke of modern political strategy and, as a co-signed letter by the White House Press Corps described, “a bracing wake-up call for us all.”
An inaccurate or misleading representation of facts is nothing new. Donald Trump’s discrediting of CNN and the New York Times as fake news intentionally disregards established journalistic standards. The tactic diverts attention from unwanted scrutiny and to undermines existing notions of which news outlets constitute credible sources of information.
The reported rise in fake news has prompted an inquiry by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and comment from Apple, Facebook and Google. However, it is wrong to frame the discussion of fake news as an epidemic. Instead, we should be considering a broader challenge to journalistic standards that has not yet been answered.
There has been a seismic shift in how information is published, and more importantly, republished. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism noted that in 2016, almost 80% of UK and US adults counted online platforms as a main source of news (above television and print media). Google and Facebook have dramatically disrupted the media landscape in the past five years, increasingly providing the infrastructure to connect people with personalised and targeted information on a massive scale. Such changes have raised the spectre of the echo chamber. As a former Google employee put it, if you watch Fox News you chose to watch Fox. If you read something on your timeline, you think it’s reality and don’t know how to find another reality.
Trump was the perfect clickbait candidate. Fake news did not put Trump in the White House. He got there by shouting his opposition into submission with an instinctive knack of self-promotion and a sprinkling of alternative facts. He is a masterful navigator of the digital news environment, and, true to his CV, a wily operator of TV news.
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Before the election, his social media posts received higher positive engagement and were more widely shared that Hillary Clinton’s. During the campaign, I would wake up to watch a lengthy Trump phone-in on Fox News. Even liberal networks happily broadcast his rallies largely unedited and unchallenged, and provided Trump with billions of dollars-worth of free media coverage.
This unprecedented coverage arguably came at a price: independent verifiers PolitiFact reported that 70% of Trump’s campaign comments were false or mostly false. As one network boss said: “Trump may not be great for America, but he is damn good for CBS”.
Political journalism has never been limited to reporting the facts. But in the era of post-truth politics, basic fact-checking should inform coverage by any reputable media outlet. Private companies can lead the way in challenging the spread of misinformation. Editorial collaboration has immense potential to better enable journalists to scrutinise powerful figures in the public interest, and initiatives such as the Facebook Journalism Project might pave the way for media companies (rather than tech giants) verifying content standards online.
New platforms provide novel opportunities for enhanced journalistic scrutiny. Verification and fact checking will become a greater part of quality journalism. Bloomberg, the BBC and Facebook are trialling new software on their sites. These developments will supplement the publication of news rather than supplant commentary and analysis.
The press has long stressed their capacity for self-regulation of industry standards. Technology companies are understandably reluctant to exercise the censor’s pen on their platforms. Strategic partnerships between recognised media authorities and exciting social platforms will become essential if news media is to remain effective in its role of holding power to account in a post-truth age.
Jack Barber is the winner of the Mackay Award, established by Hanover to honour the memory of its founder Gregor Mackay. Following the rigorous selection process overseen by a panel including George Osborne MP, Liam Fox MP and The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein, Jack was chosen to spend five weeks in Washington D.C. during the historic 2016 election, observing the impact of digital communications on the Presidential race. His report highlights the latest innovations in political campaigning techniques, contextualises the fake news scandal within broader changes to the media landscape, and looks at how electoral authorities, news organisations and political campaigners might adapt to these changes in the near future. The full report is available here.