What scares me the most about “fake news”

There’s a collection of excellent public research on the rise of false information which looks like a news article or investigation or “fake news.” Within that library includes works by Craig Silverman, the Tow Center led by Emily Bell, Sarah JeongDavid Carroll and Aram Zucker-Scharff. The discussion usually focuses on the supply of fake news across various sites and platforms and mechanisms in which fake news publishers operate.

While it’s been brought up before by many experts (including those listed here), there’s an aspect to it that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and scares me more than anything else:

Fake news wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for it. 

This is the most frightening part of fake news to me. If fake news is increasing in its supply, we need to consider there may be a rise in demand for misinformation. We can blame business models for allowing fake news to crawl into the news sites of traditional media companies, like the creepy, offensive, and misleading ads seen on many newspaper, television, and magazine websites. We can blame human psychology and our insatiable desire for “too good to be true” stories. We can blame engagement-based algorithms on Facebook and other social media platforms. We can even blame the education system and a low level of public “media literacy.” None of these aspects address the issue of demand, at least not in a tangible, studied way.

Demand isn’t necessarily correlated or even triggered by supply, but we don’t have any studies about demand for fake news.

I can’t say I know the right way to study demand for false information. But I do know it’s not enough for journalists to focus on newsroom-only solutions. What if the solution to fake news lies outside of the newsroom, platforms, and business models? It’s scary to think about, but we risk becoming like the six blind monks unable to fully understand the elephant, each saying “such is fake news, such is not fake news, fake news is not like that, it is like this.”

What methodology do you suggest for studying demand for fake news?

Illustration: Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

1 thought on “What scares me the most about “fake news””

  1. Hmm it’s a good point. Perhaps there has always been demand for fake news, be it in the form of gossip or conspiracy theories. People just have the technology now to spread and access it like never before, at a time when public trust in institutions such as media, corporations and politics has collapsed.

    Anyone can set up a blog and call it “NCC Real News” and pump out fake stories on a Facebook Newsfeed and the link won’t look significantly different to a New York Times link. I don’t have an answer but maybe all we can really do is think of ways to re-calibrate our truth producing infrastructure such as media and politics so they can be trusted by people in a digital age.

    Liked by 1 person

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