Earlier this morning, while drinking my morning tea and sifting through my morning reads (on Feedbin, if you want to know), I came across a brilliant piece of journalism from Jennings Brown, a writer for Gizmodo. He unmasked a fabulist and fake doctor who passed himself off as a scientist and an expert psychiatrist on sexual issues. It is a smart piece of old fashioned reporting, which included double checking the claims, picking up the phone, having a conversation or four, and yes, using Google and other databases. It is what a reporter is supposed to do. Kudos to Brown and the editors at Gizmodo.
Less heartening is the fact that, before Brown got to him, the so-called sex doctor fooled many, many major news outlets. One has to wonder about the sheer lack of quality control in their editorial departments. And then there were so-called academic journals that help buff up the false claims of fabulists like this individual, whose name I will not dignify by typing. The fake doctor’s rise to fame is a reminder of the well-worn warning not to believe everything you read on the Internet. It is astonishing that, in this day and age, none of the publications even bothered to check this quack’s claims. They took him and his absurd research at face value, dazzled by his attention-grabbing quotes that they used to drum up headlines less valuable than the nutrients in a fast-food burger.
If we want Facebook to flag fake news, then what is the responsibility of the media itself? Brown’s story did not just reveal one bad apple; it revealed something structurally unsound with the barrel that rotten apple was floating around in — our national media landscape. It’s time we built something new.
Let’s take a minute and think about how information flows today. The answer is simple: like it always has. It comes from word of mouth, from friends and family, from colleagues, and sometimes from established news outlets. In the past, we would call our friends and discuss a story on the phone. Later, we would email them new links with a comment or two. Some of us started blogs for sharing information. Facebook and Twitter took it all to the next level. They made information flow faster and further.
“When you look at social media, people share fake news more because it’s novel, exciting,” Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread said in an interview with the Nautilus magazine.
Her co-author, James Owen Weatherall, spoke with the same interviewer. “The memes we see on Twitter or on Facebook don’t really say anything,” he said, “they conjure up an emotion—an emotion associated with an ideology or belief you might have. It’s a type of misinformation that supports your beliefs without ever coming out and saying something false or saying anything.”
In the past, we might have shared some kooky stuff with a person or two. Then we began putting that same stuff on social networks and sharing it with a few hundred people. These people could, in turn, do the same with no more effort than a click of their mouse. As there were more outlets, there was a desire to stand out. Thus many started using headlines we now call clickbait. These headlines were often put on top of marginal information, but it got attention. The algorithms of social networks are configured to focus on clicks and sharing — “engagement,” as they say in Silicon Valley. More engagement means the social networks promote the content to more people. That is how you get the anti-vaccine movement. And that is how you get fakers playing doctor presented as medical experts.
In the modern media world, where clickbait is the tool to drive attention (and thus, advertising) many media checks-and-balance have fallen victim to the relentless speed of information. It is no surprise, then, that trust in media is evaporating.
Look, I understand when it comes to the Internet and media, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Some think-tankers without any real idea of how business actually works might want to come up with a digital tax to save news, but that is defying the very notion of the Internet. Most don’t understand the fertility of the network. For me, the Internet was, is and will always be a great giver. I worked for a dot-com, started a blog, turned that blog into a business. I strongly believe that the Internet will continue to help sprout many ideas. It allows many flowers to bloom, but in between these flowers, we have some weeds that we need to start pulling.
For starters, I would argue that everyone — the media organizations, big corporations such as Apple and Google, and others who are part of the media ecosystem should work on developing a rating system where instead of just flagging a single article, the entire publication is rated based on the truth in its work.
For example, if six out of ten stories are based on facts, then they are worth a readable rating. If in the future, their articles are deemed false, then they get dinged for it. If movies, music, and photos can be rated, why not media outlets? It seems that community-rated trust metrics aren’t good enough as a trust metric, so the industry might need a different tactic.
Journalists must remain open to new technology. As they did when dot-coms and blogs came around, many in the media react to the concept of automated news creation with disdain and fear. What most are missing is that automation, machine learning, and other new technologies are merely tools for creating better journalism.
Sadly, the media establishment rarely focuses on such issues. Take, for example, the Knight Foundation’s recent announcement that it was going to give away $300 million over five years to various groups. Something about it struck me as very odd.
None of the money was going towards projects and technologies that actually help the media and its practitioners adapt to the changing world, where network and machines drive the narratives faster than humans can control them. None of the money is going towards experiments that help surface the right information for the readers, such as Current Status.
Knight Foundation and its approach to our media problems is a continuation of the same conventional thinking that has allowed the big advertising technology companies to take control of media. No wonder, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others control a majority of the distribution and consumption of the product made by media outlets.
The only thing left in control of the outlets themselves is their brand. The stronger the brand, the stronger the bond with its customers (aka readers.) The best way to strengthen that bond is to invest in trust, and the best way to do that is not fall prey to the easy lucre of clickbait.
The consequences of long-term damage from misinformation at network scale are becoming so real that, at this point, it should be viewed as a collective emergency for everyone, including media organizations, not-for-profits, and Internet platforms. It could be said that misuse or misunderstanding of technology got us into this mess. Still, I am confident that, with the proper approach, there is also a technological solution. It will need boldness, betting on the future and less blaming others.
March 6, 2019, San Francisco