Fake news and the magic bullet

Image c/o Mike Maguire on Flickr.

A few months back (unbelievable seven months as it turns out), I wrote a piece about the whole “fake news” phenomena and how I see it as a thing. The post generated a bit of discussion online and a fair few tweets drawing attention to it. Such was the interest that I was recently interviewed by a LIS student about my take on the topic for their dissertation following a bit of signposting by someone at their university. This discussion provoked some additional thoughts in me about the emergence of “fake news”, not least in terms of how we understand and critique information sources.

In my previous post I referenced Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, a book that I feel is a key title for anyone wishing to understand the way the media operates and the process of gathering and publishing news. Since then I came across this concise video (narrated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!) explaining the five filters of Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model”. For those of you who haven’t read the book (or seen the film) the following provides a nice overview of their work:

In summary, Chomsky and Herman identify five filters that determine the news that is presented in the media:

  1. Ownership – the bias created by the ownership of media by large corporations leads to a bias in output.
  2. Advertising – the need for the media to attract advertisers to generate revenue and ensure its survival.
  3. Sourcing – ┬áthe sources that media rely on for news content, sources that provide privileged access to government, business etc.
  4. Flak – the efforts by the powerful to discredit those who disagree or cast doubt on prevailing assumptions.
  5. Fear – the mechanism to rally the public around perceived threats that could undermine the interests of the elites.

In many ways, what these filters have traditionally created is “fake news”. As soon as any kind of filter is applied, the information ceases to be a purely factual representation of events and becomes, to a certain extent, “fake”. Fake not because it is wholly untrue, but fake because it doesn’t reflect the reality of a particular situation, merely a reality that has been filtered to represent a particular truth. In the context of a media operating in this way, it is hardly surprising that there has been a growing focus on “fake news” led by the established media which has long filtered news to present a certain truth that chimes with the interests of the elites.

“Fake news” as it’s presented also offers a number of simplifications. For example, it offers the opportunity to present some simple solutions to identify news that is untrustworthy. When the traditional media talk about “fake news” they are establishing themselves as “real news”. They are the voices of authority and only they can be trusted to provide news that is wholly truthful.

Step one in solving the phenomenon: only engage with authoritative sources.

There also comes the question of information literacy: how do we equip people to cast a more critical eye over the growing number of alternative news sources online? The standard response is to reach for the CRAAP test, again, a nice neat solution to a troubling issue:

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Step two in solving the phenomenon: follow a set of guidelines to evaluate the information.

But this is a rather inadequate way of evaluating information and, for me, rather plays into the notion that the quality of the information can be assessed by following a simple check-box exercise. I don’t think this is realistic, useful or a desirable approach to take when critically appraising an information source.

One of the problems I associate with the way of thinking about news and inaccurate information is that many of those that produces information for the public have been seriously discredited in recent years. Government, the media and the security services (including the police) have all suffered from a collapse in public trust. The Iraq War, phone hacking, Hillsborough…all have contributed to the sense that the establishment is not to be trusted. Pointing out that one media outlet is better than an other will be meaningless to those who see the media as discredited and will therefore only trust sources that reinforce their existing worldviews. Equally information published by government will also be seen as untrustworthy because it is associated with a discredited political elite. Under these conditions, where trust is at a serious low with so many producers of information, is it little wonder that people prioritise sources that reinforce their own views and prejudices?

Rather than CRAAP tests and assorted “this is good, that is bad” approaches, I would argue that a more sophisticated approach is required. Rather than focusing on the sources, shouldn’t a focus on social, cultural and economic capital be fundamental in how people critique and understand information? Would not a focus on these areas play a key role in tackling their prejudices and, therefore, undermine a key element that contributes towards a failure to critically appraise information? Is it less about evaluating the sources and more about people’s lived experiences? When lived experience trumps “authoritative information”, will reinforcing authoritative sources of information not simply be ineffective?

Of course, focusing on social conditions rather than on those disseminating propaganda is more difficult. There’s not a simple answer that provides a sense that we are dealing with the issue at hand. A complex solution also undermines a sense that the “information professional” has the solution, when in reality it is a problem that can only be tackled as a society. As with everything in our society, it’s reassuring to know that problems have readily identifiable solutions. The reality, in my view, is that very often the problems require a certain complexity in their solution. There is no magic bullet.