Fake news is trending. Like literally. It is trending because people love it and share it on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and god knows where. It is also trending because people are talking about it, what it is and what needs to be fixed to fix it. This is a thorny problem. And people are giving it all the attention it deserves, within the regular, traditional, newsrooms and inside the companies like Google and Facebook that call themselves platform (it’s another matter that they are media companies).
Recently I was part of a discussion on Fake News. Just a casual chat among some people from the news industry. A lot was talked about but I think there was one point that no one brought up. The problem of the fake news is also the problem of diminishing authority of journalists and their vanishing role as gatekeepers.
Never before in the history of news, the news has been defined by readers. It may sound rather elitist, but the truth is that what is news and what is not has always been defined by journalists who have played the role of gatekeeper. That is until now. Now, due to multiple factors, primary of which is the role of platforms like Google and Facebook that treat all information equally whether it is fake or real, whether it is significant or trivial, whether it is half truth or a detailed analysis, whether it is nuanced or sensationalist, the news no longer has a gatekeeper.
Instead of gatekeepers, now we have the guiding lights in the newsroom and one of the these lights that shine the brightest is the page views.
So earlier, journalists used to chase stories or report something with the hope of changing the world. Now they do something particular because that will be read. And what gets read may not be the real news, or the important news. People, the masses in all their collective wisdom rarely care about what you will call “important news”. Instead they care about the news they can use, or something that will entertain them.
This is also the reason why Facebook’s new tool to report fake news is doomed to fail. This tool gives people an option to flag off a news item they believe is fake. Essentially, it hopes to give people an ability to play the role of an editor, who will fact check and ensure that a news story matches some quality guidelines. Unfortunately, readers can’t do it. Not en masse.
As unfortunate as it may sound — or elitist — readers can’t be editors. They just aren’t cut out for it. Not only most of them can’t distinguish fake news from real, for variety of reasons, they also can’t be expected to vote right on a story.
I don’t really know what can solve this issue of fake news. I do have some ideas but whether they are feasible or not, I don’t know. What I know for certainty is that this issue can’t be solved by masses. News is not a program where you can say that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow…”. News is not software. News is not algorithm. News is something very different, very complex. Newspapers or a website is not something that masses can run because if they do, or when they do, you are always going to end up running into this problem of fake news.