It is nearly impossible to state the seriousness of the threat to American society represented by the false news infection contaminating social media.
But here’s a try:
Paul Horner, who claims to be responsible for many fake news postings: “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.”
And President-elect Donald J. Trump is clearly doubling down on his reliance on social media — now poisoned by fake news, hate speech and hacking — as he continues to imply to his base that legacy media is corrupt.
On Monday he made it clear — once again — that he is still dismissive of major media. The New York Post reported that in a “summit meeting” with the heads and anchors of networks and cable systems, Mr. Trump “kept saying,’ We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest people who got it all wrong.’ He addressed everyone in the room calling the media dishonest, deceitful liars. The meeting was a total disaster.”
Today, a scheduled meeting with New York Times executives was cancelled because Mr. Trump reportedly wanted to change the ground rules to off-the-record.
The gravity of fake news in social media — and the difficulty of offsetting or wiping it out on these platforms — has at last now been well noted.
President Barak Obama last week told reporters in Germany, “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not” … and “if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
In a later interview, he was more specific: “If elections are full of fake news and false information and distractions … then the issue is going to be what we are doing to ourselves from the inside”.
Similarly, New York Times columnist James Rutenberg has addressed “‘fake news’ that is running wild across [Facebook and other sites], and turning our politics into a paranoiac fantasy come to life … If the past week [reported planned president-elect appointments] provided any indication of where politics are going, the next four years are going to require an all-hands-on-deck effort to keep the national conversation honest”.
Fortunately, a powerful “fake-news opposition” is beginning to stir. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg on Friday announced that “We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility very seriously…We’ve made significant progress, but there is much more work to be done.” He cited making it easier to report bad information and enlisting fact-checking organizations.
Twitter and Google have also taken first steps in this direction.
A prestigious panel convened by the Wharton School joined the anti-fake-news alliance discussing, “Fake News, Hate Speech and Social Media Abuse: What’s the Solution?” . One solution, noted Jennifer Golbeck, director of the Social Intelligence Lab and professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, is to “follow the money”; she applauded the recent Google decision to prevent websites from carrying fake news from accessing its AdSense advertising platform that helps such sites share in advertising revenues.
A more comprehensive — and practical — set of proposed actions to combat fake news has just arrived on the Medium website from Jeff Jarvis, CUNY J-school professor and John Borthwick, Founder of Betaworks,in their “A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News”
Jarvis summarized their ideas to curb the proliferation of fake news this way: A top-level editor could “bring a sense of public obligation to the platforms and help translate journalism to the technologists and technology to the journalists.”
A formidable mission well worth undertaking.