The viral spread of hoaxes and misinformation ahead of the US election and Brexit referendum two years ago was a wake-up call for many established news media, who have gone on the offensive to shore up their credibility and help filter out fake news.
Major media organisations, often in partnership with big technology and social media firms, have stepped up fact-checking and other steps to support fact-based journalism.
But these efforts have been complicated by unrelenting attacks on the media by US President Donald Trump and others who tend to label any unfavourable coverage “fake news.”
Fake news is as old as journalism itself, and reputable media organisations have often played a role of “gatekeeper” to reliable information. This role has been fundamentally challenged in the fast-moving Internet age when rumours and false information can become viral, sometimes with tragic results.
In one chilling example in India, a WhatsApp rumor warning that 300 people had descended on Gujarat looking to abduct and sell children has triggered deadly mob attacks.
Social media “has made things much worse,” because it “offers an easy route for non-journalists to bypass journalism’s gatekeepers, so that anyone can ‘publish’ anything, however biased, inaccurate or fabricated,” says John Huxford, an Illinois State University journalism professor.
“Journalism’s role as the ‘gatekeeper’ of what is and isn’t news has always been controversial, of course. But we’re now seeing just how bad things can get when that function breaks down.”
Internet firms, after initial reluctance to define themselves as “media,” have stepped up efforts to identify false news and to “curate” stories from “trusted” news sources.
“Technology companies including Apple, Google, Snapchat, Twitter, and, above all, Facebook have taken on most of the functions of news organisations, becoming key players in the news ecosystem, whether they wanted that role or not,” said a March 2018 report by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Numerous studies have shown that fake news – often more sensational than genuine information – spreads faster online because of how social media has prioritised “virality.”
“False political news travelled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information,” said a report this year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The MIT researchers examined 126,000 rumours spread by three million people, and found that false news reached more people than the truth.
“Analysis found that it took the truth approximately six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people,” the researchers said.
Oxford Internet Institute scholars came to a similar conclusion, pointing out that on many online platforms, news is “prioritised by complex algorithms that have been coded to sort, filter, and deliver content in a manner that is designed to maximise users’ engagement,” according to a study.
“The speed and scale at which content ‘goes viral’ grows exponentially, regardless of whether or not the information it contains is true,” wrote Oxford researchers Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard.
Huxford said many Internet users are not adept at telling fake news from the real thing, making the role of major news organisations critical.
“This is why Trump falsely labelling the mainstream media as ‘fake news’ is so toxic,” he said. “It means that, at a time when there is a lot of fabrication and falsehoods swirling through the system, the credibility of the most reliable sources of news is being undermined.”
There have been some hopeful signs for news media, such as increased digital subscriptions for The New York Times and The Washington Post. But many legacy organisations such as local newspapers are struggling with a shift to digital platforms.
Journalists may face new dangers too, in some cases subject to attacks by political leaders even when trying to debunk false information.
In Brazil, the fact-checking organizations Lupa and Aos Fatos, which have partnered with Facebook to curb fake news, have faced threats and harassment, with some groups accusing them of ideological bias.
The Philippine government meanwhile revoked the licence of website Rappler, which has also joined factchecking efforts against President Rodrigo Duterte.
The United States has broad constitutional protection for the press, but some say Trump’s attacks are having an impact.