The new year begins for the media with the sobering realisation that, for all its frantic attempts to monetise news, the most obvious new revenue stream emerging in 2016 has no place at all in ethical journalism: the practice of making stories up.
Fake news looks set to grow in 2017. The youthful opportunism which allowed Macedonian students to make fast advertising cash by feeding the prejudices of social media users with fabricated stories ahead of the American election has shown what is possible. Money is not the only potential benefit here – the destinies of entire countries are at stake.
Elections are looming in France, Germany and the Czech Republic. Germany is considering fines of up to €500,000 on social media publishers which host fake news. The Czech government last weekend launched an “anti-fake news unit”, called the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, amid concerns that Russia may attempt to influence the vote through anti-western online propaganda.
Giovanni Pitruzzella, Italy’s anti-trust chief, last week told the Financial Times that a concerted effort is needed across the European Union to stamp down on the practice of fake news by tracing those responsible for publishing such material and subjecting them to fines. This response is wishful (it’s not so easy to fine the agents of state-sponsored propaganda) and authoritarian (with its profound implications for freedom of speech).
There might be a better way.
Tomorrow (6 January) in Paris, ahead of France’s presidential elections in April, an important meeting will be attended by senior figures from leading French media organisations, including Le Monde, Agence France-Press (AFP), France Television and Radio France. Its purpose is to devise a strategy for combating the threat of fake news during the election campaign.
One option is to launch a live and open website, on a platform called Check, where the public can report dubious articles for collaborative verification. The British-based investigative journalism site Bellingcat will seek to map the behaviours being used during the election campaign to mass circulate misinformation, and so expose the perpetrators of fake news.
The project is a crucial test for the new global First Draft Partner Network, which appears to represent journalism’s best hope in defending its integrity from the trolls and fakers. Launched in September to improve verification of online news, the network has expanded rapidly since the US election and now has 300 news organisations worldwide wishing to take part. Members include such prestigious publishers as the New York Times, Washington Post and Die Zeit. Participating British news brands include the BBC, the Guardian, Telegraph, Press Association and Sky News. Crucially, the project also has the active support of the big distributors of online news: Facebook, Google and Twitter.
The French election promises to be an unprecedented example of rival news organisations working together in the interests of truthful reporting. “This is the first time that everyone has come together specifically to combat misinformation,” Jenni Sargent, First Draft’s managing director, told The Drum.
The Check system was developed by non-profit social technology company and First Draft member Meedan. “We have got most of the French media partners involved and the idea is that we combine efforts to look for emerging questionable media; specifically videos and photographs but also fake news sites,” says Sargent. “Any disputed content will be put into Check and collectively we will assign a verified status based on what everyone has been able to establish.”
There is no doubt that news organisations are alarmed by the capacity of fakers to poison the well of online information. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith has put the site’s journalists on high alert for 2017. In an end of year memo he warned that fake sites would become “more sophisticated” this year and have “higher production value”. He cited latest video production techniques as an opportunity for hoaxers to portray people saying “something he or she never said”.
For professional journalists who put a value on quality and trust this climate of trepidation and confusion represents a business opportunity. It is the news industry’s chance to show that it is committed to public service and education rather than mere entertainment and titillation.
In this column last month, Will Lewis, the CEO of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, accused Google and Facebook of “killing news”. He said that the internet giants – the key vehicles for fabricated stories ahead of the American election – were “treating fake news in the same way” as they were treating the content of the Journal and other serious sources.
Facebook’s first steps to address the problem have been faltering ones. Its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg says that the company is “extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth”. Italy’s Mr Pitruzzella said last week that Facebook could not be allowed such a role. “It is not the job of a private entity to control information,” he said. “This is historically the job of public powers.”
Facebook has partnered with outside fact-checking organisations to clean up its ecosystem. One of the most high-profile of these, the website Snopes, has already been subjected to a damaging investigation by the Daily Mail, apparently based on the divorce papers of the couple who founded the site. The story was interpreted by one Guardian writer as an attempt by the Mail to “cast doubt on the notion of fact checking”.
Snopes – and similar self-appointed truth arbiters – should be called to account. But serious news providers must do more to separate themselves from those who cynically relay mistruths. For example, a recent Sunday Times report claiming that “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75 per cent Muslim” turned out, according to the paper’s apology on Sunday, to be based on a poll of children in a single largely-Asian school who thought 50 per cent to 90 per cent of the British population was Asian (not Muslim). Some might see the story as barely distinguishable from fake news.
The First Draft Partner Network recognises the value of accuracy over sensationalism. Sargent believes that the fake news issue has helped to unify large parts of the professional news industry. “There’s a movement towards working together as much as possible and we haven’t experienced any resistance from any of our partners towards the idea of working with their competitors.”
The network, which has in recent weeks met in London, New York and San Francisco, also appears to have a healthy relationship with the big internet companies. This is “vital”, Sargent says. “Without their participation, I think we are not going to get very far.”
She hopes that, though this initiative, faked stories that are debunked during the French election (and beyond) will be demoted in social media rankings and denounced as false in promoted tweets and in the editorial content of participating news organisations. The First Draft project hopes to develop a “visual language” for story verification which is as recognisable and accepted as the blue tick system used on Twitter and Facebook accounts.
But some of the fake news producers are highly sophisticated in their methods. If the fraudsters were able to counterfeit a future verification system that would be “very dangerous”, she says, noting how “hundreds of thousands” of fake Twitter accounts can be created to promote a single piece of misinformation.
For the news industry, there is a strong business case for making the First Draft network a success, making the public more aware of the value of its output and more likely to pay for it.
But it’s not just a news initiative. Academic institutions and organisations dedicated to human rights and the environment are also aligned. Sargent says the wind farm industry approached First Draft to say it has been “dealing with [online misinformation] for years”. Other areas of society are threatened by a post-truth political climate. “The American election brought it all to the surface.”
The fightback against fake news begins.