What Is Fake News?

Fake news is, well, in the news these days. During these post-election weeks, Google, Twitter and Facebook have been falling over each other to address the public concerns that, to put it simply, their failure to fact-check got the wrong guy elected.

In recent public discussions the term “fake news” has had wildly varying meanings, but for the purpose of this post we will use the definition given to NPR by the former head of Twitter, Vivian Schiller, “… a story, an article, a video, a tweet that has been fabricated, completely invented out of thin air, intentionally for the purpose of misleading.” This definition eliminates poorly written opinion pieces, hyperbole, articles with missing or omitted facts and just plain lousy journalism…and it still leaves a lot to be concerned about.

The problem is not simply a few people trying to spoil an opposing candidate’s chances, create political satire or trick a demographic into embarrassing themselves. Fake news is an industry. By many accounts, individuals working as fake news publishers have been earning up to $300,000 per year through Facebook and Google’s ad programs. Many publishers are foreign nationals working from other countries and completely immune to any form of regulation.

The phenomenon of fake news is causing heartburn in the social media ecosystem partly because policing can be so difficult. Facebook’s technical censorship system, which is criticized for being inconsistent when applied to personal posts, is currently stretched to the breaking point. Google, which recently updated its AdSense policy to read that the company will ban sites that, “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information”, will be hard pressed to actually take action, unless they redirect massive resources towards creating a new technical and human editorial process. All of this will take time and a sharp directional change from companies that have long viewed themselves as content sharing platforms, with minimal responsibility for the actual content shared.

Indeed, there is deep ambivalence within the industry about taking on the type of fact-checking accountability mainstream global media outlets are held to. In fact, there is little appetite inside the industry to curate news at all. In May 2016 one of Facebook’s trending news editors told Gizmodo that conservatively slanted stories were routinely being suppressed. This revelation caused lots of industry angst and even calls for a congressional investigation. In the aftermath, the human editing team was eliminated, a move which Facebook insiders credit with a huge increase in false news on the trending list in recent months.

Perhaps most importantly, fake news makes content sharing platforms lots of money. Both Google AdSense and Facebook Audience Network let content publishers receive a cut of revenue when they display platform-curated ads on their web sites. With viral phony news these revenues can be significant for both parties. This may make platforms reluctant to crack down, especially considering the many other headaches involved.

Fortunately, while the big money involved in fake news may be part of the problem, it is also almost certainly part of the solution. With commitment and focus, major platforms do have the ability to create strong technical and human editorial systems, which would deny these sites an audience and revenue. Since most platforms already curate to prevent certain sites (porn for example) from using their ad services, this solution seems both possible and reasonable.

Based on recent events it seems that the social force that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google have amassed needs to be balanced by some increased responsibility. One can even argue that massive content sharing platforms are risking their own credibility, even viability if they fail to reverse the fake news trend. However, the approach above only addresses the supply side of the equation, which history has shown to be an ineffective way of fixing social problems. The real question is why we as a nation are such avid consumers of the equivalent of social junk food?