Ever since the significant emotional effect of the U.S. presidential election, “fake” news is thought to have influenced the outcome by possibly skewing public opinion regarding the candidates with a variety of stories ranging from somewhat believable to completely outrageous. In the aftermath of all this, Facebook, Google, and other search engines and social media platforms are promising to prevent fake news stories from bombarding the public.
However, it will probably be a bigger challenge to “fix” the fake news problem than these online platforms think. It’s easy enough use the label “fake news”, but what about sites like The Onion which are intended to be funny, not factual. Satirical sites are not intended to deceive people, but to entertain them. While these types of sites often bury the fact that they are providing satire, not real news within their about me page, the fact remains that they are not real news sites.
An example of how one satirical news site created a problem involved a New Zealand satire website called Spinner. This site published a satirical news story entitled “Bush to invade Kiribati islands”, which created widespread panic in the country because people who read the story feared an invasion by America.
The Onion doesn’t have an obvious disclaimer on their published content, but they do claim to have a readership of 4.3 trillion people, which is well over the world’s population. That should at least spark enough doubt to look it up on Wikipedia or Google.
The real problem is how often these stories are shared and how many people read the headline, overreact and share them like they are real news. Most people who “read” the story never get past the first paragraph, which means they also aren’t likely to do any real research.
The other side of the spectrum relates to the malicious clickbait sites designed specifically to generate click-throughs, and sales. They make sites that look like real mainstream sites so they seem credible, while they are just money-making sites. Google and Facebook already have initiatives in place to ban such sites.
Then there are gossip magazines that focus on stories about celebrities that may or may not be true. Some of celebrity news sites adhere to basic journalism, using multiple sources, and other kinds of evidence to support their stories. However, some of their stories may still be less than factual. They at least try to vet their stories, so perhaps they shouldn’t be labeled as fake news sites. Not all gossip, rumor, or satirical sites are used for deception.
There should be a way to categorize and flag these sites so people know they are rumor/gossip sites, satirical sites, or fake news sites so people have a clearer picture of what they are looking at before they believe it or even share it as real news.
What about news that people think is fake, but later turns out to be true? It happens with politics, government data, medical data, scientific data, and religious data. Consider Galileo in his day when his scientific findings were dismissed as false that were found to be true later.
Promising to ban fake news from social media and search engines is essentially a false promise. It isn’t possible to differentiate between fake news, bots (e.g. https://fredharrington.com/best-instagram-bots/) fiction, satire, gossip, rumors and truth. They can label click-bait sites, but defining “fake” news is another issue. A broader labeling scheme is needed to help people ascertain the difference between these sites because of the gray areas between them all.