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An inside look at Channel 4’s fake news probe: How lies are cannibalising the value of news brands

Channel 4, discontent with social media devaluing its brand, is working to verify facts circulating across the internet in hopes this will prove its purpose in the news ecosystem.

Fake news, while not a new concept, is putting news brands like Channel 4 News at risk. The term is increasingly being misused, misunderstood, and undermining the confidence in trustworthy media sources. That is the position of Channel 4 as it gathered government and media officials today (7 February) to delve beneath the surface of why fake news and the social media ‘echo chamber’ is devaluing everything it stands for.

The broadcaster’s Fake News Week forms part of an industry-wide effort to nip the problem in the bud before it reaches the same scope as it has in the United States, Channel 4 opines, where truth is at greater risk under a new government that labels any media organisation that challenges it as fake news as seen by its attack on CNN.

“When the president of the United States declares something is fake news you’ve got a problem,” says Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter. “We are in a land of mirrors. At the very moment we are combating fake news, we are also in a situation as never before, where journalists are being challenged as to their right to express themselves.”

Placing such power in the hands of social media puts news brands in a challenging position. While Channel 4 sees the clear advantages of having a working relationship with Facebook, giving it access to a larger audience it wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach, news editor Ben de Pear questions the value of its brand on a platform where “a kid in Macedonia can earn the same amount of money as us writing fake news”.

“There is no difference between us and anyone else, no credit or financial incentive given to us for the processes we have gone through. We are keen that there is some way to differentiate what we do from an individual in Macedonia,” he added.

While fact checking is something every news organisation has a legal obligation to do, pressure has been mounting on newsbrands to further scrutinise information before they publish in the wake of a fake news epidemic that is thought to have swayed such groundbreaking events as the US presidential election and the Brexit Referendum.

Channel 4 has been running its own lie-debunking service, FactCheck, for several years and each year it has bolstered the service to help the public understand in an ever-expanding sea of information what is true and what is not.

“We've always as journalists had to check our own facts. But now increasingly in order to do our job properly we have had to widen now to check the facts on behalf of our viewers and the users of our online service,” says Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4.

Social media sites run by algorithms that until recently have been unable to verify the legitimacy of news have made it harder for the public to distinguish the truth from fiction, as shown by Channel 4’s own research. In a Yougov survey the broadcaster published yesterday (6 February), of those respondents that stated Facebook as their primary source of news, almost three quarters (71%) thought at least one of the fake stories was true whereas only half (47%) of those who primarily get their news from broadcasters thought this.

Channel 4’s chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke’s believes forcing social media to comply with a set of fact-checking standards is where the solution lies: “I don't think everyone would say mainstream media is in any way perfect, but there is a set of rules and there are a set of sanctions. Broadly speaking they do work. The issue with social media is it is the wild west. It is incredibly difficult to regulate the internet, no situation is going to be perfect. But the start of the solution has to be within the social media companies.”

Yet while many of those at the broadcaster’s gathering agreed that the responsibility lies in the hands of online behemoths to no longer act as a vehicle for fake news and establish fact-checking services in line with broadcast media’s efforts, broadcasters and publishers are still taking matters into their own hands for fear of losing the value of their brand.

One need only to look to CNN to understand why. The president of the United States has repeatedly taken aim at CNN for unfavourable coverage of his presidential campaign. But the back-and-forth clash took a serious turn when Donald Trump branded the media organisation fake news, vowing there will be “consequences” to its reporting of the unverified Russia paper and refusing to take questions from its journalists at a press conference. He went on to declare war against the media.

At the time, observers questioned whether this was the beginning of a media silencing in the country while the president’s administration arm themselves with a new way to communicate directly with the public - through social media. Trump, who according to research is one of the most frequent tweeters on the platform, cited social media as one of the reasons he won the election.

“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re [rival presidential candidates] spending much more money than I spent," he told CBS in an interview last year.

Rounding up the morning’s discussions, Snow eloquently called for those present from the government and media to join the fight for truth: “The biggest thing is awareness in how the world is shifting. Within the internet there are wonderful things and very dark things. We have to be aware and in our awareness develop some strategies. This is the most important period in our commitment to public broadcasting we have ever been in.”

Jon Snow is one of the judges at The Drums Online Media awards, where we celebrate the cleverest, boldest and most original purveyors of news and views from around the world.

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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