The “Curious Deformations” of “Fake News"

Fake news may not be a new phenomenon, but bogus stories are reaching people more quickly than ever before.

The Globe and Mail recently published a quiz to help readers avoid it. FactCheck.Org advises people how to spot it.

How much of a threat is fake news? Does the proliferation of these stories mean trusted media, even democracy, are at risk? I asked Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of U of T Scarborough’s Journalism Program and a Canadian Journalism Foundation board member, what he has to say about this.



The “Curious Deformations” of “Fake News"

There is much anxiety these days among mainstream media journalists about the proliferation of so-called "fake news." The concept has been around for a while, but has gained more traction during the recent US presidential election.

As defined, "fake news" is a deliberate attempt to present false information for the purpose of sowing doubt in the mind of the public about issues and politicians. In the past, it may have been easier to dismiss outrageous claims. But in this digital age, we are overwhelmed by much more of it.

A serious consequence of "fake news" has caused the public to distrust all media even more than before, and that is a real concern. "Gresham's Law" in economics states that "bad money drives out good." The media version of Gresham’s Law is that “bad media can also drive out good media,” it seems.

Scrutiny, not fear

While there is no doubt that the Internet has allowed for a view into the murky workings of trolls and other anti-social elements, we should not be driven to a state of moral panic about the causes of "fake news." There is some overreacting to a phenomenon that deserves serious scrutiny but not widespread fear.

A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review on "fake news" acknowledges that it exists. But it is very small compared to mainstream media consumption.

CJR notes that most disinformation is spread and reposted, largely by one source—Facebook. We tend to repost a particularly juicy bit of news/gossip if it comes from a source we know. So if your BFF sends around a note claiming that nuclear power causes deformations in flowers, you are more likely to repost this because of your personal vouching for your friend, but not necessarily of the message itself. 

We can be assured that most people still rely on mainstream media even as they may dip an occasional and curious toe into the murkier pools of the Internet.

I asked media observer Mathew Ingram for his take on this. In an email, he says,

I think some of the panic surrounding it is definitely overblown -- fake news is a problem that has been around for centuries, if not longer. I just wrote about how it was practiced by some of the founders of the American revolution, including John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin—and in there I also point out that while Facebook and the social web have exacerbated the spread of fake news, they have also made it easier to debunk.  

One of the reasons why the issue is gaining so much traction is in part, because it serves a purpose for mainstream media organizations to distance themselves from their recent failures in covering the US election, as well as the Brexit referendum in the UK.  It is easier to blame the Internet and the trolls than it is to deal with the limitations of modern media organizations. In both the US and the UK, news organizations made assumptions that proved to be dramatically wrong. Canada hasn’t suffered from the same effect. The conditions that affected British and American news organizations have been replicated in our country as well. Yes, it could happen here if we are not careful.

The future of journalism

In my opinion, tempered optimism is the best approach. News organizations still struggle to find a way to serve both their audiences and their business obligations. Rather than admitting that the years of layoffs, downsizing and untested digital investments have brought them to this place, the media seem to prefer blaming basement bloggers and the ignorance of the voters.

In the UK and the US, news organizations contracted out their intellectual and journalistic obligations to pollsters and pundits instead of going out and doing essential "shoe-leather" reporting.  Yet all is not lost…far from it. Professor Charlie Beckett is director of the Polis Institute at the London School of Economics. He says that we are now entering the best time for journalism, specifically as a reaction to the failures of media organizations over the past few years.

There is more work ahead. Even the venerable New York Times has announced further cuts to its editorial ranks and has now dispensed with its public editor, with the dubious goal of reaching some elusive digital demographic.  That is hugely disappointing.

Our purpose as citizens, and as educators is to expect better from our more trusted media organizations while giving our students the critical tools they need to call out “fake news” when they see it.

Applicable to our 21 century dilemma, the Italian journalist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) observed after World War 1, “The old world is dying; the new world does not yet know how to be born. In between, some curious deformations emerge.”

In our digital era, those deformations now include “fake news.”

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