Many millions of words have been written about the scourge of fake news, and I’ve some bad news: I’m about to offer a few hundred more. But hopefully they will convey a point which hasn’t been discussed up until now.
Fake News isn’t new. The impact Fake News has had (if it can be proven) has maybe taken a new turn, but the scale of the problem isn’t new. Or at least it isn’t if you’re a sports reporter.
While many rightly lament the apparent inability of the public to separate fact from fiction (and certainly on my Facebook feed, those doing the lamenting were also in some cases also sharing some of the bogus Donald Trump stories just a few days earlier), few have offered realistic answers beyond ‘Blame Facebook’ and ‘Do something Facebook.’
And, of course, Facebook – along with Google, and others – do have a responsibility to tackle stuff that is deliberately designed to be deceptive on their platforms. The tedious argument over whether Facebook is a media or tech company rather misses the point. It’s an information company. Like the Yellow Page decades before it, it has created a platform on which information is distributed. The long-term viability of Facebook depends on people valuing that information, and the experience they have while getting it.
So when Facebook argues that 99% of the information shared on its platform isn’t Fake News, it is using data to miss the point. 1% of posts on Facebook still equates to a lot of posts, and if those 1% happen to be the ones people remember, and ones which people share, then the Fake News problem is still as big a problem as many journalists are saying.
But Facebook really isn’t the problem here. Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, at Kings College, wrote an article on Medium last week in which he asked: “If Facebook is the problem, why is the solution more Facebook?”
“Rather than asking Facebook to tell truth from falsehood, shouldn’t we be spending more of our time thinking about how we reduce our reliance on one dominant social media platform for our news and how we sustain and grow trustworthy news providers instead?”
Facebook may well come with a bunch of solutions which solve the publication of Fake News – maybe just as it did with a lot of the clickbait stuff designed to game the appreciation signals in its algorithm about a year ago – but Fake News is just another symptom of the wider challenge journalism faces: Being meaningful to people.
The annual chart of doom
It’s as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and a visit from Santa to see the annual graph of the least-trusted professions doing the rounds on social media. Here it is again:
We’re so used to seeing journalists near the bottom of the list – along with politicians and estate agents – that it’s something of joke these days. But maybe if people appreciated journalism more, then Fake News would be less of an issue.
And that, surely, is where journalists can tackle the problem of fake news head on – just as sports journalists, particularly football journalists, have done ever since the internet made it possible for anyone with a broadband connection to become the distributor of often made-up football transfer rumours.
Sure, getting an Arsenal fan’s hopes up that Ronaldo may sign for the Gunners probably won’t have the same impact on the world as telling a staunch Catholic that the Pope is backing Trump, but the impact a football rumour has on a person may well be similar: If it plays to what you believe, or want to believe, you’re more likely to believe it’s true.
Transfer rumours offer a quick route to audience growth at a headline level. They also offer a sure-fire way of never really being taken seriously by football fans, who soon learn which headlines to take seriously, and which to avoid, when scanning through NewsNow in the morning.
Newsrooms I work with have spent a number of years plotting a course through transfer windows. The brands involved are known for covering football clubs for maybe a hundred years. They need to be part of the conversation fans are having every day, but they need to ensure they are a respected part of that conversation.
So transfer rumours form a part of what they cover – but in a way which ensures that fans find themselves wanting to check a rumour against what the Liverpool Echo is saying about Liverpool FC, or ChronicleLive is saying about Newcastle United. One editor I work with prides himself on the fact football fans don’t believe a transfer is true until they’ve read it on his website.
Getting to that position of authority is hard. It’s not guaranteed just because we’ve been around for a long time. It comes from earning (or re-earning) the respect of football fans. That’s done through engaging with people, and allowing your journalism to be guided – but not directed – by what the people you want to read your journalism are talking about.
“Do you know the guys at the Liverpool Echo?”
I’ve been to America twice this year with work. On both occasions, when asked who I worked for, people I was talking to offered up the fact that a) they support Liverpool FC and b) always turn to the Echo to find out what is happening. In sea of red-coloured content, the Echo shines through even across the Atlantic because of its approach to content, and the fact its writers make themselves part of the LFC community online.
This approach isn’t restricted to just established regional news brands. It can equally apply to individuals. Andy Mitten is one such example, or Tony Barrett, ex of the Liverpool Echo and the Time and now of Joe.co.uk. People hear something, and turn to them for verification or advice.
That’s where all journalists need to be if Fake News is to be truly tackled. Fake News is a symptom – or an exploitative outcome – of a problem which is flagged up in that awful annual chart: We know what we do is important, and essential to the fabric of society. But we need the communities we serve to appreciate that, and we need to be seen by the communities we serve as part of their communities.
Facebook, Twitter, Google and the others of course have a Fake News problem. If they aren’t careful, it’ll erode trust in their platforms, and hit their bottom lines quickly. But the problem of Fake News won’t be solved by platform changes alone. Fake News is just a reminder of the challenge we all face as journalists: To find a relevant place in the digital world our readers have moved to.
For solutions, it’s worth looking to the sports desk.