The #fakenews story is blowing up everywhere, and I'm seeing a lot of posts about it on here, overwhelmingly about how hypocritical it is and an assault on free speech.
I argued briefly here (in a comment) that it's a pretty natural step for Facebook to take, they are positioning themselves more strongly as the Uber of news. I do not defend them or their methods in the slightest, but I'd like to consider the concept of fake news.
Specifically I'd like to challenge the consensus that marking out fake news is essentially a bad thing. My core question: Is this an issue of truth, or is it trust? And then, is an alternative possible?
Can there exist such a thing as "real news"?
What is news?
Let's define news broadly as articles which report the facts about events. This means we're disqualifying opinion pieces, cartoons, and so on, i.e. not everything in a so-called "newspaper" is news. A simple enough first step.
A major problem is that in general the facts are contextualised for the convenience of the reader. The choice of how to contextualise them leaves us open to all kind of issues, and gives journalists a bit of scope to skew the facts to suit a narrative.
Steps to determine "realness"
So what makes news "real", and can we tell for sure?
Perhaps the first step is that the events actually happened. So, if there's some news about a political rally, the first check we can make is that there actually was a political rally. Or if there's an article reporting some new vaccination research, we can check that the research was conducted at all.
Then, we might require the report to contain only facts and supporting facts. Further more, it must contain all the relevant facts, so that there can be no untruths made by lies of omission.
We might then look at the bias of the choice of supporting facts. This is very hard to judge and I think it would be a very hard thing to determine fairness in. Maybe we want a balance of supporting facts, or when a quote is taken from a person, do not use one which is clearly pushing an agenda of any sort. I can hear the censorship bells ringing already though. So I think the best approach would be to have as little supporting fact as possible, and no opinion or comment from someone outside of a factual capacity.
For example, when reporting on some new research, it would be best to keep mentioning other research in the field to the bare facts, such as "in the last few years, several other research teams published their finding which you can find here, here and here" instead of "these research results contradict the scientific consensus that such and such case is true. [Insert lofty quote from opposing view point]" or even the opposite of this where the research is confirmed by other similar results. This is a great example because we can actually leave the round up of data to other researchers who do meta-analysis studies.
We might require some further standards on the language used. The use of overly emotional or provocative language could change the "sound" of the facts so much that they turn them from facts into opinions. The choice of words is very important, and we might require that the use of words reflect the subjects accurately. Again, I don't think there exists an objective way to do this so perhaps the review structure needs to reflect this by including a variety of reviewers.
As an example, it could be more accurate to say that "scores of refugees attempt to illegally circumvent the UK border every day" than "swarms of migrants are invading Britain every day!" I say accurate for a reason: using swarm as the collective noun for people gives the impression that they are behaving like insects, which without purpose, is false; calling them migrants instead of refugees confirms they are coming by choice to work, and we do not know why they are coming, there's bound to be a variety of reasons, including seeking asylum; saying they are invading is incorrect as only militants invade, and so there civilians are directly implied to be violent conquerers. Finally, the use of exclamation mark conveys to us this is alarming.
If there is no "real news", the idea of "fake news" is without meaning
If you cannot define any meaningful definition "realness" and process of determining it, then all news must be fake news. I personally agree with a blanket distrust of media as it is, and a deep skepticism of what is reported. But I think there is such as things as "what happened", so there can theoretically be "real news". We just may never see it.
At odds with this are the ideas loosely grouped in the theory of post-modernism, which challenge that there can be any sort of objective reality. Unless we can agree that there is some common ground upon which we can all agree that a set of words can represent, with some degree of truth, "what happened", then the idea of news becomes absurd, and further discussion pointless. The issue then would be one of manipulation, a valid one in my opinion, but it doesn't really get us anywhere with fake news.
Trust and the recuperation of the idea of news
For those that believe we can convey truth facts to others in some limited capacity, should we trust the fact checkers?
I see trust as the main issue here. Nobody really believes that Facebook have their best interests at heart. In fact, it'd be rare to find anyone who thinks that any media corporation, internet company or politician has their best interests at heart. (prove me wrong! 💕) So it's not surprising that no one believes the fact checkers will check the facts in an un-biased way if they are all assumed to be biased and corrupt.
So beyond just decrying the state of things, what can we do?
A proposition for Steemit, and self-organising communities at large
What about setting up groups of likeminded people who check facts? We could do here on Steemit. I wonder if it would be possible to have such an intersection of experience and bias, commitment to honesty and truth, as well as the ability to actually check the facts.
How far would it have to go? Perhaps actually being there, on site, is the only way. Which is to say, actually being a journalist yourself. This is certainly supported by quotes from various journalists when asked how they verify facts for a story :
"There’s no hard and fast rule about any of this stuff," one interviewee told the authors. "You have to exercise your judgment all the time."
"[T]o me, verification is much more rooted in the actual reporting process, step by step and looping back in upon itself," said another.
Here's another one from a journalist answering the same question on Quroa :
At one point I had a trusted network of people that, while not providing me information directly, would confirm or deny things. I'd usually try to get at least two confirmations on an aspect of a story before I ran it.
Sounds like it's hard to get to that level of connectedness, but if anyone has read David Brin's great near future Sci-Fi novel Existence, you can imagine how freely contributing people can find experts in their own networks to verify the validity of such things. He calls them smart mobs and they're based on a reputation system, not unlike Steemit, StackExchange, etc.
I'll actually include an extract of an extract here from Wattpad, for the purposes of illustration, because it's inspiring stuff. You can read the whole chapter there for free.
Disinformation, a curse with ancient roots, has been updated with ultra-modern ways of lying. Machoists and other bastards might plant sleep-ais in a million virtual locales, programmed to pop out at a pre-set time and spam every network with autogenerated "plausibles" ... [...] Mutate this ten million times (easy enough to do in virtual space) and you'll find a nerve to tweak in anyone. Citizens could fight back, combating lies with light. Sophisticated programs compared eyewitness accounts from many sources, weighted by credibility, offering average folk tools to reforge Consensus Reality, with discarding the dross.
Disclaimer: I think it's short enough to cover a "fair use" interpretation of this copyrighted work.
As a futurist, it's not the first innovation that Brin as predicted (he is said to have predicted spam and blogging) and I think some kind of implementation of this would be amazing.
How others do it (though they be compromised)
For the record, this article outlines how PolitiFact works.
And here's some advice from Press Gazette, who I have never heard of 🙃
Perhaps the same methodology can be used by a group here, even if the source of the methodology is not trusted. In other words, this may be good advice from compromised, or misinformed people, because the methods are objectively functional, i.e. scientific.