Nov 22 2016

Fake News

fake-newsThis post is a follow up to my post from last week on post-truth. The idea that we are living in a post-truth era took off this last year, making it the top pick for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Right on its heels, though, and perhaps a contender for phrase of the year, is “fake news.”

Fake news is clearly a thing. There are websites that make up fake news stories for various purposes. Already in the short life of this phrase it has been destroyed by abuse. It is already losing focus and meaning.

It is simultaneously a bug and a feature of the internet that it is a venue for a war of ideas. There is an obvious benefit to this in an open society – the free exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hash it all out with a true democracy of expression and access (well, for those with access).

The bug is that the internet is also a venue for fraud, lying, misinformation, and manipulation. Not everyone is a fair player, and they ruin it for everyone else. In actuality it is not black and white. Rather, there is a spectrum of behavior, and most people are at various points along that spectrum on different issues. At the same time there are extremes, some sites that aspire to a high level of journalism or scholarship, and at the other end sites that are pure fraud, propaganda, or click-bait.

We are collectively still trying to figure out how to deal with the resulting mess. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are using the internet to address the problems of the internet. Bad actors can therefore hijack or duplicate the mechanisms of quality control and subvert them.

The concept of “fake news” was introduced as a method for sorting through news outlets. It was instantly subverted for nefarious purposes, and is already waning in usefulness. Essentially a fake news site can just say, “Oh yeah, well you’re a fake news site.” Ideologues can make their own list of “fake” news sites, which are just their ideological opponents. The term becomes a weapon rather than a tool.

We have seen this before in other contexts. The term “skeptic,” and in fact the format of skeptical analysis and debunking, has been hijacked by science deniers pretending to be skeptics, tarnishing the brand and sowing confusion.

Characterizing News Outlets

Messy reality does not comport well to our desires for easy categorization. Features tend to exist along a spectrum, and may occur along various spectra simultaneously. This creates three intellectual pitfalls – the false dichotomy, the false continuum, and the demarcation problem.

The false dichotomy is a tendency to separate the continuum into two discrete black and white states, ignoring all the gray in between. This fallacy can also occur when multiple axes of variation are collapsed into one, such as portraying all politics as if they occur along a liberal to conservative spectrum.

The false continuum fallacy is the opposite – the tendency to ignore the extremes and portray everything as gray. This often comes with an implication of false equivalence. Sure, everyone cheats a little, but that does not mean it’s OK to be a career con artist. All science has weaknesses and flaws, but that does not mean it is equivalent to blatant pseudoscience.

The false continuum is related to the demarcation problem. There is often no clear bright line between the extremes of a continuum, making a perfect operational definition difficult to impossible. Where do we draw the line between “real” news and “fake” news? We must often be content with a fuzzy line and a fractional definition. There are a number of features of pseudoscience, and the more of those features you have the more pseudoscientific you are. Beyond some critical point it is legitimate to call something “pseudoscience.”

Sometimes individual features have a dramatic impact. Let’s take scientific journals as an example. They exist along a spectrum of quality. But, some journals do not do any real peer-review. Some do not seem to have any editorial filter. Some journals, in essence, are fake, or broken. Their primary purpose is making money, not printing quality science.

In other words, there may be some black and white qualitative differences. Not everything is quantitative.

News Sites

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the fake news controversy. Clearly a simple dichotomy, fake vs real news, is not sufficient to cover the range of what is out there. Here is my quick attempt at summarizing various types of news outlets:

Traditional Journalism: These sources consider themselves real journalists and hold themselves ostensibly to some journalistic standard. Of course there is a range of quality within this category, but their purpose is to report news and they at least try to follow journalistic traditions. Within this category there is a spectrum from great journalism to horrible journalism – essentially a spectrum of quality.

Biased or Ideological Journalism: These are sites that have the format of traditional journalism but have a clear ideological bias or agenda. This is a spectrum orthogonal to quality – the degree of ideological bias. It is probably best to consider all news outlets as biased to some degree, just as all people have biases, and news organizations are made of people.

Along this continuum are news outlets that make a sincere effort to be ideologically neutral or at least balanced. They may lean toward one political perspective but at least try to keep their biases in check.

Further along the continuum are news outlets that have a clear and open political bias, but make a sincere effort to work within a framework of reasonable journalistic quality. Even if they are a liberal or conservative paper, they are trying to be journalists first.

This category slides seamlessly into outlets that prioritize their political agenda above journalistic quality. They blatantly select the news they choose to report and the spin they put on that news based on the political narrative to which they are catering. At some fuzzy point they cease to be real journalists. They are no longer selling news, they are selling a narrative they call the news.

Opinion Outlets: There are websites, journals, and newsletters that are not news at all (and don’t pretend to be), but a venue for commentaries and opinion pieces with a clear ideological, political, or social agenda. They are generally up front about their agenda, which is the point, to promote that agenda.

Satirical News: The Onion is the best example of a satirical news outlet. This is not news. This is pure entertainment. They make no attempt to fool the public about their satirical nature. Their articles are obvious satire and humor. Despite that, sometimes the humor is subtle enough that Onion articles can be shared as if they are real. There is a range of quality here as well. Some satirical site are just not that funny, and without the humor they become increasingly difficult to distinguish from news outlets that are pretending to be real. In other words, there is a demarcation problem between bad satirical news and fake news.

Fake News: Fake news outlets simply make up their news stories. They have no genuine journalistic process or mechanisms of quality control. Their stories are made up fictions in the format of real news, optimized for click-bait. They are meant only to push emotional buttons in order to motivate clicks. Sometimes those emotional buttons are political. They may call themselves satire as a white-wash, but the articles are not meant as real satire, to humorously expose some aspect of society or human nature through mockery, but only to motivate clicks.

Social Media

Through social media articles are often detached from their source, and therefore from their context, and are spread as individual isolated units. All articles from all of the above categories, and ranging from all over the various spectra of quality, sincerity, and bias, are dumped into a single bucket and mixed together. An article comes up on your feed, and it is up to the reader to discover and assess the nature and quality of the source. Most people just read the headlines in their feed, or perhaps the attached blurb, and don’t have the time or inclination to do a thorough investigation.

There are sites that curate news for you, but that just adds another layer that will fall into all of the categories above. At least, however, you only have to do a deep evaluation of the news aggregator once, and if you find a reliable one that can at least filter out the fake and blatantly biased or low quality news. However, aggregators are likely to have their own biased filters.

In the end, any news you care about should be sourced and in fact you should check multiple different sources to average out the biases as much as possible.

It is also good social media hygiene not to share or spread news that you have not vetted yourself. If you don’t have time to do a reasonable investigation, fine, but then don’t share the article as if it is valid news when you have no idea.

But of course people exist along the same spectra as news outlets. People also have blogs and Facebook pages, so we are all at various times playing different roles in the news cycle Рwe may be curating news, sharing news, and writing articles. We are all becoming journalists, aggregators, curators, and consumers at the same time.

There is no simple solution to all of this. It is a true, if at times glorious, mess. The only real solution at this time is for each individual to be a savvy and skeptical reader of news.

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