The real problem with fake news… is news.

Yesterday, I was asked to appear on a CBC lunchtime call in show to discuss the issue of fake news during election time. Apparently, Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co recently conducted a poll in which two out of five Canadians reported that they had seen “fake news” online. In this case, Research Co defined “fake news” as “stories about current affairs that were obviously false”.

Now we can take Research Co to task for their imprecise definition of fake news here. Many Donald Trump supporters, for example, think that mainstream and reputable news outlets report stories that are “obviously false” and unfortunately, truth seems to rest in the eye of the beholder these days. However, that’s a much longer discussion for another blog post.

What I’d like to do today, is assume that we are seeing false, exaggerated, or misleading news more often than we used to, and I’d like to look at one important driver of misinformation during this particular Canadian election, using the recent rumours about Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister as a sort of case study of the ways media manipulators try to bait established media outlets to spread rumour and innuendo.

“This Soup is So Fake” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC0 1.0

Last week, a partisan site known for spreading false or inaccurate information published an unverified story suggesting that the current Canadian Prime Minister was fired from a job he once held due to some scandal (I’m not linking to any of this here, because I think I’m already giving this story too much oxygen). This “story” was picked up by a prolific Twitter user with links to media, who repeated the rumour and suggested that a mainstream and reputable Canadian media outlet, The Globe and Mail, would soon be dropping a bombshell investigation – tagging the globe and mail in the process.  This type of social media behavior of course prompts a response, and media outlets as well as opportunistic members of the competing political party were quick to jump into the fray.

The problem is, when the Tweet, the original website, or any other tweets on the subject made by a political opponent are mentioned by big media outlets, it’s like adding gasoline to a flame. And it doesn’t matter if the established outlets are debunking the rumour – it still gives it more weight than it would have had if they had ignored it altogether. Sometimes it can cause people to think there is more weight to the rumour, even as they attempt to disprove it. If there’s allegations being reported on, something else could be true too. This is how mainstream or traditional journalism is implicated in the spread of misinformation. They want to jump on a popular or engaging story that begins to trend on Twitter, but as they do, they add emphasis and respectability to it that would otherwise not be there.

The Social Media Lab reports that almost 60% of links that are being shared on Twitter with the hashtag #cdnpoli are links to mainstream news sources. Only 11% of links are shared from highly partisan sites like the one that originated the above rumour. This means that we have to look at how mainstream news sources are complicit in the spread of misinformation. I think that the current engagement-driven business model of social media is escalating these problematic practices, however, the fact remains that news has always been subject to a media logic that favors the fantastic, dramatic and scandalous. Social media just ups the speed and scope. If news, particularly political news is considered to be in the public interest, we need to rethink the idea of news as a business. If it is a public good, it must be treated like one, and not subject to the slings and arrows of eyeballs for advertising dollars.

The real problem with fake news… is news.

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