The instant, global spread of information through the Internet clearly benefits us as individuals and as a civilization. But the Internet can also be wielded to spread disinformation, a formidable downside of the technology that we’ve recently labeled “fake news.”
Simple web publishing tools enable anyone to fabricate stories that appear identical to legitimate journalism, which prompts social media users—both human and robotic—to share them as easily as real news. Fake news, crafted to exploit us, wreaks havoc on our health, finances and politics.
Reality constrains the quantity of real news stories, but our boundless imaginations unleash a torrent of fake stories that now overwhelm our news feeds. Not only does fake news deceive us, it undermines our trust in legitimate news sources. This is the real catastrophe and, many believe, the objective of Russia’s fake news campaign leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections. Fake news threatens the institution of democracy itself, because an uninformed public cannot make sound governance decisions.
Fake news, crafted to exploit us, wreaks havoc on our health, finances and politics.
Many groups have tried to stem fake news through various fact-checking initiatives that have all failed, because they fundamentally misunderstand the problem. Some employ human editors, who cannot possibly keep up in any useful timeframe. More scalable schemes crowd-source the work, as though the public could possibly know what is happening elsewhere in the world. Others employ machine learning, as though reality follows some recognizable pattern. Others use automated reference-checking to verify facts elsewhere online, defying the very definition of “news.” Some internet media platforms necessarily publish “both sides of the story” side by side, serving up contradictory facts that guarantee misinformation and confusion. Some find the problem so intractable that their only remedy is to “educate the public” that news sources simply cannot be trusted, and that truth is a matter of opinion always “worthy of respect.”
Fortunately, examining fake news through the lens of science greatly simplifies the problem and points us to tangible, effective remedies. Just as we apply science to the critical study of history, journalism is simply the scientific investigation into the truth behind current human affairs. Just as natural scientists do, “ethical journalists” follow a methodology to encode objectivity, transparency, and best practices. (See the sidebar to review the Rules of Ethical Journalism.)
Violators are not real journalists; they fit the mold of pseudoscientists who sidestep or even flout the scientific method. They are the source of fake news.
It is critical to distinguish fake news from news that is simply wrong. The common fallacy that fake news and wrong news are the same leads to great confusion, as politicians hurl the term “Fake News!” to dispute one fact and therefore dismiss entire news teams. Scientists can be wrong without being fake, and so can journalists. Inaccuracies are inevitable— the key is to follow rules that minimize and correct them.
That’s why fact-checking is not only futile; it is also barely relevant. Instead of hopelessly chasing errors in each story that pops up, we should routinely and openly audit the journalistic practices of reporters and news platforms. Audits can be performed by associations like Newseum, or startups like NewsGuard that survey and monitor news reporting practices. Consider how financial audits that bring trust to stock markets certify the controls of a corporate Finance Department rather than the specific numbers reported to Wall Street. This is a more tractable and relevant approach to fixing the problem, helping us critically assess news in real time based on the source, just as we do in deciding which scientific articles to believe. A peer-respected author from a media outlet with disciplined editorial practices generates both credible science and credible news.
Although most people do not become professional scientists, we teach the scientific method to all students to develop critical thinking skills, appreciate scientific work, and reject pseudoscientific claims. We must similarly teach journalism to all high school students if we want a society that appreciates the difference between journalism and fake news, and has the tools to distinguish them. In fact, these classes can directly contribute to the solution, by openly scrutinizing reporters’ work on Wiki pages that everyone can see. Such a significant corpus of journalistic reviews would yield strong signals to the public.
Fake news will finally wane when major news distributors such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter adopt this scientific mindset. Historically complicit, these companies are now eager to escape the hot seat, but they first need to overcome their powerful institutional bias that truth is whatever their users click on. Specifically, they must transparently label journalistic audits on the news stories they stream, and incorporate the signals from these audits in prioritizing the articles populating our news feeds.
When we as a society understand and appreciate how journalism works, and when our news feeds prioritize content from real journalists, we will once again enjoy the freedom and security endowed by a well-informed democracy.
About the Author
David Cowan is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a trustee of the Center For Inquiry. In 1995 he founded VeriSign to bring trust to e-commerce by authenticating the identity of web servers.