Traditional news organizations made a deal with the devil when they turned to social media and search engine optimization to gain digital audience and revenue.
They recruited "community managers" to raise their profile on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. They tagged their articles to raise them in search results.
The devilish side of the deal was that presumably ethical news media were trying to sell credibility and verified information — facts — within a turbulent ocean of emotion. On social media, feelings are more important than facts. People want to declare who they are and what they believe. So they "like" and share stuff that reinforces their view of who they are and what they agree with. Emotions predominate over facts.
Articles that are popular, shared and linked to will rise to the top of search results in Google and other search engines. It's easy to share or like something that reinforces your view of who you are.
Misreading the data
The post-election idea now being championed by many journalists that Facebook and other social media should be fact-checked, and that fake news stories could be eliminated from social media shows they misunderstand the new media dynamics.
Craig Silverman, an investigative journalist who specializes in how to verify information on the internet, wrote how fake news outperformed real news on Facebook during the last three months of the election campaign.
Lots of media colleagues have been arguing that fake news helped Trump win the election. But they are confusing the symptom with the disease.
The rise of fake news has more to do with the declining relevance of traditional news media, both as businesses (Google and Facebook have taken all their advertising revenue) and as credible sources of information.
Media types like me (my paid subscriptions: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, The Economist) saw our views reflected in those publications. What we ignored is that these kinds of print media are no longer as trusted by the public at large. People don't care what The New York Times says.
In a poll by the Reuters Institute, people in 26 countries were asked to respond to the statement that "you can trust most of the news most of the time.” The percent who agreed was highest in Finland, with 65 percent, and Greece was lowest with 20 percent. In between were Germany 52 percent, U.K. 50 percent, Spain 47 percent, Japan 43 percent, and the U.S. 33 percent.
Given this level of distrust, we should question the idea put forth by journalists in the U.K. and the U.S. that a blizzard of "certified" facts from traditional news organizations about Brexit or Hillary or Donald would have changed anyone's mind in the voting booth. What's more, identifying the truth is complicated, as The Guardian's John Naughton has pointed out.
Media of the people
Media empires have been built on the notion that people want to be thrilled, entertained and made to feel good about themselves rather than being educated.
In August, John Herrman of The New York Times published an article that demonstrated the irrelevance of traditional news media and their focus on issues and facts. Herrman showed how media that exist only on Facebook had been influencing discourse about the political campaign, with advocacy from the left and the right.
“These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook, and you’ve probably never heard of them,” he wrote. “They have names like Occupy Democrats; The Angry Patriot; US Chronicle; Addicting Info; RightAlerts; Being Liberal; Opposing Views; Fed-Up Americans; American News; and hundreds more.”
It was in that space that people were talking with their friends and deciding who to vote for. Polls and traditional media missed this conversation or underestimated its importance.
Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and John Borthwick came up with some suggestions for how Facebook and other social platforms should handle fake news. Among them was cutting off advertising revenue to obviously fake sites. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post is urging Facebook to hire an executive editor to police the traffic. Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for The New York Times, argued that if there is not an aggressive effort to counter fake news, it will drown out facts.
Evidence for optimism: Traditional media still matter
The Reuters Institute study mentioned above, which was completed before the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, offered a more sanguine view of credibility of traditional media. "Our research suggests that even in the era of social media and atomized media, news organizations and traditional news brands still matter enormously."
It went on: "Although aggregators and social media are important gateways to news, most of the content consumed still comes from newspaper groups, broadcasters or digital born brands that have invested in original content. Across all of our 26 countries over two-thirds of our sample (69 percent) access a newspaper brand online each week, with almost as many (62 percent) accessing the online service of a broadcasting outlet."
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via DaveBleasdale.