Fake news, the false or misleading information presented as legitimate information about current events for news, is nothing new. It can be traced at least to the 1890s, though in the current day seems more prevalent because of the explosion of online news. This may be exacerbated because the traditional source of the news—the analog newspaper—has declined. Some 2500 local and regional newspapers have closed since 2005—though as many online “news” websites have mushroomed leading up to the 2022 mid-term election. Some of these outlets conform to the pattern of “pink slime” journalism (a euphemism from the filler product added to processed meats), the practice of poor-quality news reports, many computer-generated, peddled as local news.
Moreover some journalists have become political operatives and see their duty as to tell their “truth”, not unbiased reporting. Axios suggests that media and journalists deploy this so-called truth-telling at scale, particularly to promote Democrats and demonize Republicans in targeted swing districts before the election. However GOP-leaning news sites are reported to flourish with similar tactics. Internet policy expert Bill Dutton suggests that people wrongly blame the internet or social media for fake news, when it is humans, in fact, who disseminate misinformation, whether it is intentional or not. Here are three suggestions to combat the fake news problem.
Dutton observes that the rise of the Fourth Estate, the press and media, was an important development in world history to check the power of the state and leaders. His forthcoming book describes how the Fifth Estate, the internet, offers unprecedented opportunities for individuals to be independent of the media and empower themselves with information. “My suggestion is to read or view the news critically but don’t rely only on news sources; always consider sourcing your own information, as you can; and be skeptical of any source, including yourself, as we are all fooled on occasion by our desire to confirm what we already believe to be true,” he writes.
Dutton is not surprised by the rise of pink slime journalism as the internet is a “garbage heap”, but various search tools have emerged to help people find quality information. Dutton suggests cultivating a genuine interest in politics and looking for at least four sources of information, both online and off, for example the text of speeches, regulatory actions, court proceedings, press releases, word of mouth, testimony, broadcasting, email, books, newsletter, and so on. “The Internet enables access to more sources of information as possible, so we need to be more critical of ourselves,” he says.
A paper presented at the 50th annual Telecom Policy Research Conference “Free Speech, Platforms, and the Fake News Problem” by Marshall W. Van Alstyne suggests a guarantee of authenticity. Calling on Nobel economist Ronald Coase who explored externality markets and information, Van Alstyne suggests creating a market for truth by systematically discouraging liars from lying. It would work as follows:
“Allow ad guarantees in a market for truth. Let anyone wishing to signal the integrity of their claims place a resource at risk as warrant for the truth of those claims…Choose the expected value of the resource at risk to reflect the expected value of social harms. Give people making strong claims the option (not a requirement) to warrant that their claims are true. Examples include a politician making a claim about an opponent, a policy officer or antivaxxer making a claim about vaccine efficacy, or a consumer product company making a claim about its product efficacy or where it is made (e.g. “made in the USA”). The warrant, posted in advance, serves as a time-limited reward to anyone who can prove the claim is false. To dispute a claim, a challenger pays a modest fee to cover the cost of adjudicating fact-checking. Adjudication is handled by a random sample of peers. Winning challengers claim the warranty to spend as they wish, allowing them to undo the harmful externality. Unchallenged claims, or those judged true, have the warrant returned to the author. In all cases, the cost of guaranteeing the truth of an honest ad is zero. The false claimant, however, pays for the ad, pays the pledge penalty, and pays in reputation. Simply put, the forfeited pledge is the price of a lie. It is paid only by liars. A politician who wishes to lie may still do so. But lying becomes expensive.”
Legacy regulation holds back competition in radio, television, and print. While there is essentially no regulation stopping dubious online “news” sites, one faces many barriers to start or extend a television station in the real world with human workers, cameras, a physical location, and transmission of information via broadcast spectrum. The entrepreneurs must get permission from the Federal Communications Commission which judges ownership by an analog 20th century standard and whether the operation serves the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Dutton observes, “Regulation of ownership is less critical when there is competition in the media for news.”
The very presence of a physical news operation employing human workers in a community already combats the fake news/pink slime problem. Human-generated news in one’s community can have greater authenticity because of its proximity to the subject. When newspeople cover their local community, they have an incentive to create fact-based, quality journalism. It is easy to post an online news story under a fake name; it is difficult to go to the scene of the crime, engage with witnesses, and the report the news on a camera without some authenticity. As such, local TV news can be an important check on the proliferation of fake online news.
The pending acquisition of Tegna by Standard General would create the nation’s largest minority owned, women-led broadcasting company that is poised to bolster local news across the US as Tegna operates 64 television stations in 51 US markets. Spearheaded by Soo Kim, a long-term Korean-American investor with a proven record in the broadcast and local news industry, Kim has figured out the local TV news business model and has the capital to deliver it to scale. Investments in trusted broadcast news channels is an important long term hedge against the rise of misinformation online.
Unfortunately, fake news is here to stay. But if regulators allow it, the market, can deliver the many sources of information that citizens need to make informed election decision.
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