Just a tremendous write-up today from Quartz. I have always been fact-based even before I knew there was such a reason to be so defined. I grew up with radio and newspapers as a daily staple in our home, worked in broadcast journalism, and then state government. To not be fact-based is simply astounding.
Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year this week, and suddenly everyone is talking about the problem of “fake news.” Well, OK, not “suddenly”; the US did just elect a president whose whole strategy was based on it. (And still is; his campaign manager this week denied Donald Trump ever called for a registry of Muslims, though he did so explicitly, on camera.)
But the fake news problem does now look even worse than we thought. Not only were Macedonian teenagers making a fast buck by publishing fake pro-Trump news (oh, and so was a guy in Arizona, who claims he hates Trump, but the money was good); a BuzzFeed analysis found that fake news got more engagement on Facebook than the top real news stories.
Now Facebook is under fire for exacerbating the fake-news problem; CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in denial; and Germany is worried that Russian-led fake news and hacking could disrupt its own election next year. (“Welcome to the club, guys,” say countries (paywall) with weaker media institutions, where truth fell victim to Facebook’s algorithm years ago.)
The good (real) news: Facebook and Google are going to starve the most egregious fake-news peddlers of ad dollars. Journalists are banding together against the threat. Some Facebook staff are rebelling against Zuckerberg. Some college kids even hacked together a solution over a weekend. (Yay!)
But even if Facebook shuts down the Macedonian teens, it won’t cut out extremist behemoths like Breitbart, or even more moderate partisan sites on either side. And that’s the real problem. Liberals and conservatives in the US—and in many countries—already live in two entirely different news realities. As Orwell observed long ago, totalitarianism destroys the “common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal.” We’ve done that job for it.—Gideon Lichfield