Faking out fake news: How to survive the post-truth news cycle

8 Sep 2017

From left: Silicon Republic editor John Kennedy with Mashable UK editor Anne-Marie Tomchak and the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, Raju Narisetti, at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Mashable UK editor Anne-Marie Tomchak and Gizmodo CEO Raju Narisetti spoke with Silicon Republic editor John Kennedy about telling truth from lie in the age of fake news.

There was a moment when belief was suspended at Inspirefest 2017 when Raju Narisetti, an accomplished media professional and chief of some of the most influential online media titles in the US, revealed that social media algorithms want satirical articles to be clearly labelled ‘satire’, missing the entire point of satire.

The audience laughed, but you would actually cry if you realise just how serious this is.

‘There is no algorithmic solution to making you smarter about fake news. You’ve got to read, look for the cues’

In an age where the president of the US can distort the truth willy-nilly and dismissively label anything he doesn’t like or what he disagrees with as “fake news”, where entire sections of society vote in a destructive way based on fear and misinformation, when people amplify incorrect facts without reading articles, and when traditional media outlets pander to an elite rather than the real populace, something is clearly broken.

All of George Orwell’s fears about the Ministry of Misinformation are coming true.

Teach yourself to tell truth from lie

At Inspirefest 2017, I spoke with Narisetti, the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, and Irish woman Anne-Marie Tomchak, the UK editor of Mashable, about the epidemic of fake news and how, in an age where we have all the tools to know more about the world, our understanding appears to be clouded.

Narisetti is a media executive with a track record in creating, rethinking and managing major media organisations around the world. He is the man responsible for News Corp buying Dublin’s very own Storyful, and he is a journalist who has run newsrooms in three different continents: North America, Europe and Asia.

Tomchak, who launched BBC Trending in 2013, was nominated for a Radio Academy Award for Innovation after breaking a story about the ‘offer’ of illegal drugs on Instagram, which led to a change in policy by the platform. She also broke the world exclusive revealing that the viral ‘Syria Hero Boy’ video was faked.

I began by pointing out that what we call ‘fake news’ is nothing new and that, in fact, misinformation and propaganda were some of the oldest weapons of war going back to antiquity.

“The Pulitzer Prize, the highest award you can give for quality journalism, is named after Joseph Pulitzer who was one of the foremost muckraking, yellow tabloid journalists of his era,” said Narisetti. “The printing press has been around since the 1450s and only in 1914 or 1915 did Walter Williams come up with this creed for journalists which is that accuracy and fairness ought to be a part of journalism. So the idea that fairness and accuracy are part of journalism is actually relatively new. It’s only about 100 or so years old.

“We have actually lived with fake news for a very long time.”

Tomchak agreed and pointed to parallels between Donald Trump on Twitter today and how, during the Reformation, Martin Luther used to adapt his pamphlets and preaching to different audiences. “There are similarities in the way in which they understood the changing nature of the media at the time and they capitalised on it.

“Donald Trump is part of this primary source revolution, where he speaks in a certain language that really reaches people and he understands social media and the fast-paced nature of news and how that message can get across to reach different people.”

People need to smarten up: Read the article before you share

Faking out fake news: How to survive the post-truth news cycle

Silicon Republic editor John Kennedy with Mashable UK editor Anne-Marie Tomchak at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Unlike in the past where journalists, broadcasters and newspapers were the primary disseminators of information, ordinary people equipped with smartphones and social media hold that power.

Tomchak said that this means that people have a responsibility to make sure that what they share is true.

“We have all shared stuff that has been questionable at some point or another. What you do to inform yourself and what you do after you have learned that something is wrong is what is really important,” she said.

Narisetti agreed that the fast-paced nature of the web and social media is a factor in disseminating “alternative facts” but, also, the power of the crowd has a role to play in determining accuracy too.

“It is important to remember that, when we only had newspapers, if a journalist made a mistake the earliest you could correct that was 24 hours later. Because that was when the next newspaper came out.

“With the web it obviously it got a lot faster, but I think that with social media now the ability to correct things almost instantaneously is also there. You see somebody tweet something and immediately people start pointing out that that’s not accurate. So the ability for us to disseminate accurate information is also a lot faster now.”

The counterpoint to this argument, however, is that because of the way that social media is engineered people tend to go into their own echo chambers, hearing only what people they like and people like them share.

“And then there is this bandwagon effect where, because somebody you follow and trust says something, you think it must be true. And that is the real challenge we have now because the virality of fake news is so much more intense,” said Narisetti.

Tomchak said that people can determine truth from lie if they are motivated to do so; by ensuring they read from a variety of sources, by studying the source of the information such as URLs, and not being fooled by imagery and thumbnails.

She said that, in the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, instances of fake news stories reached a disturbing crescendo.

“I would say the best tip I could give is ‘read the article’, right?” Tomchak said to applause from the audience. “Because when you read it you are going to see that there are quotes and they might be linked to other places. Check the quote by copying and pasting it into Google and see if it had been published somewhere else.

“There are things we can do as individuals, not just as journalists, to fact-check things. But if you read the article, that’s the most obvious thing to do.”

Has Facebook become the Ministry of Truth?

Faking out fake news: How to survive the post-truth news cycle

Mashable UK editor Anne-Marie Tomchak and Gizmodo CEO Raju Narisetti. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Narisetti said that the manipulation of facts and data is widespread and can be seen in the ongoing debate around climate change. “Because they are saying ‘a percentage of something’ then it must be true!”

‘When I think of stories like Grenfell Tower, the Manchester concert tragedy, the London attacks – every single one of those stories had people intentionally spreading false information online’

He said that the media can get people to appreciate the seriousness of matters like climate change by localising the threat in storytelling. “Climate change is impossible to believe or to take seriously unless you link it to the local community. If you start talking about how parts of Florida could be underwater in X number of years, people will believe that a lot easier than if you are just going to talk about how the world is going to end because of climate change.

“I think storytelling, putting more fact-checks in, are ways to help audiences and readers get at the facts.

“There is no algorithmic solution to making you smarter about fake news. You’ve got to read, look for the cues.”

The role of social networks like Facebook and Twitter in the spread of fake news is something these companies themselves have finally – and only recently – started to take seriously. Facebook is deploying resources and algorithms, and employing services like Associated Press and Snopes to help warn people that stories they are sharing could be questionable.

“But it feels a bit like an afterthought, that this is happening because fake news has created a crisis,” said Tomchak.

Indeed there has been a lot of soul-searching about the role fake news has played in the Brexit referendum outcome as well as the US elections.

“George Orwell talked in 1984 about the Ministry of Truth. I don’t want Facebook to become my Ministry of Truth by using their algorithms, or whatever, because there is just simply no way a machine can really help us understand this,” said Narisetti.

“We own a website called The Onion, which is the premier satire site, and algorithms just don’t get satire.

“They want to classify it as fake news. No, no, no. Satire is different from fake news, surely it can be turned into fake news. The answer a service like Facebook has is, can you please label it ‘Satire’ so the algorithm can read it? But if you label it satire it can’t be satire. So these are practical issues and the solution really is us saying there is satire, I am laughing at this … but if it is taken out of context it can become fake news. Media literacy plays a big part in this. As media companies we have kind of dropped the ball on that.

“My 15-year-old, on any given day, can talk to me about news of the day and say something about it and I almost always ask her where did she get it and she has no idea. Getting a 15-year-old to appreciate where you get what you got is important. It is something I think, as a society, we have dropped the ball on and we need to pick that back up.”

Tomchak said that people also have a responsibility in how they conduct themselves online.

“When I think of stories like Grenfell Tower, the Manchester concert tragedy, the London attacks – every single one of those stories had people intentionally spreading false information online.

“We need to do a lot more in terms of how people use the internet and educate them to have a lot more due diligence in the way they behave. There is definitely a difference in the way people behave online and the way they behave in real life.”

In conclusion, Narisetti and Tomchak agreed that the fundamental differentiator in faking out fake news isn’t just truth, it is trust.

Tomchak pointed to research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that indicated that young people in the US are willing to pay for trusted news sources.

Narisetti said that one of the unacknowledged reasons for why there is diminishing trust in media is newsrooms no longer reflect the diversity of the world they are serving.

“So if your newsroom does not reflect the diversity of the audiences you are trying to reach – their viewpoints, what they look like, skin colour and gender – then you do have a problem. And I think most newsrooms refuse to acknowledge that newsrooms are fairly elitist and of a particular demographic,” he said.

Crucially, Narisetti added, the real answer to fake news is an audience with discerning minds. “The answer to fake news is in this room. It is in the readers. It is not in machines. You can blame Facebook and Twitter and everybody else but unless we are smart about it and look for those cues we are always going to be faked.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Ultra Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale now!

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years