The Rise of Fake News and the Crisis of Trust
BY Future of StoryTelling — April 5, 2018

When a candidate for president of the United States runs on a platform that belittles and maligns journalists and the media in general, it might be time to examine the credibility—even sanity—of said candidate. However, when that candidate actually wins office on that platform, maybe it’s time to look at the industry in question. Apparently Donald Trump wasn’t alone in his belief that today’s media is flawed enough to be blamed for many of society’s problems. Millions of voters agreed with him.

Continuing his relentless attack on the media in an interview with Mike Huckabee last October, now President Donald Trump took credit for coining the term “fake news,” calling it, “one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with.”  

Regardless of whether or not he did in fact invent the phrase, “fake news,” what’s more concerning about his statement is its sweeping nature. The media that Trump so broadly refers to comprises hundreds of thousands of different news outlets, some extremely well researched and respected, and others less so. To label the entire industry as “fake” is to undermine the reporting efforts of many serious, fact-based news outlets and to encourage the American public to doubt the headlines in front of them. At best, fake news will turn out to be a passing fad and will disappear with a new administration; at worst, it will transform our society into one that disregards the very notions of fact and truth. Yet while fake news is an issue that has the potential to impact everyone, it is particularly pressing for those in the media and storytelling business. After all, it’s not every day that the president of your country suggests your entire career and industry are based upon lies. The question, then, is how did we get here and what’s to be done? 

First, a point of clarification: It should be noted that there are two competing definitions of “fake news.” The first is fabricated content presented as a news article or story, oftentimes created by people looking to garner clicks or nefarious groups trying to mislead public opinion. And there are plenty of offenders on that front. The second type is stories that the Trump administration disagrees with or is offended by and has brushed off as “fake,” despite being accurate reports by journalistic organizations. Both are worrying in their own right, but taken together, they are a toxic mix with the ability to completely erode the public’s trust in media.

Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy and author of the 2011 New York Times best seller The Filter Bubble, has studied this phenomenon and thinks the forces driving fake news can be traced back to our most basic human instincts. 

"These are two key ways [in which] people decide whether or not to trust someone," he says. "The first is motive: Are your motives benign or malicious? And the second is identity: Do we have shared interests and are we part of the same community?"

These subconscious questions inform not only how we come to trust others, but also how we decide to trust a news source.

""When you look at the problem of fake news, it's all about motive, it's all about identity," Pariser says. "It's about demonstrating what team you're on and that your team is winning and that your team was right. Those factors–motive and identity–power a lot of what gets shared online."

These factors also lead tot he formation of online bubbles, or "filter bubbles" as Pariser calls them. These spaces where people only read and share information from sources that align with their own interests are dangerous not only because they breed ignorance of other opinions, but also because they encourage reader complacency in terms of questioning the sourcing of an article. If you automatically trust an article because of the content of the headline, you could be setting yourself up for being misled.

David Weinberger, writer and senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, dubs this the “echo chamber problem.”

"Humans tend to prefer ideas that we agree with," he says. "We just do. In a network as large as the Internet, we could spend the rest of our lives trapped in endless loops of sameness, convincing ourselves that we're right and everyone else is an idiot."

Weinberger sees a link between fake news and the rise of networked knowledge. The Internet today allows for ideas to spread in a way they never have before. Instead of answering a question by asking someone or consulting a book, we answer questions by clicking link after link on Google or Wikipedia. One link leads to another and another, ad infinitum, allowing knowledge to spread out in a networked fashion.

"We should recognize that we've [historically] constructed knowledge as a series of stopping points. Ask a question and you get an answer and you can stop. Links are the opposite of stopping points; they're invitations to continue," he says. "Knowledge is now a system of temptations to continue on."

In other words, it's now possible to click through source after source without ever coming across a differing opinion, simply because of how massive these knowledge networks are. This points to the difficulty of identifying fake news if all your news is coming from inside a filter bubble; the only way to separate truth from fiction is to either step outside the bubble or pull collective intelligence from the network. As Weinberger sagely advises, "The smartest person in the room is the room." 

So maybe the fake news epidemic can be traced back to our basic instincts or new networks of knowledge. But who bears the responsibility for pulling us out of these loops and exposing fake news for what it is? And is this something we need to do for ourselves, or something that large companies should be taking responsibility for?

Molly Swenson, cofounder and head of brand at RYOT, an immersive media company based in LA, believes both parties should be held accountable, and her company’s unique approach to storytelling is indicative of that. Founded in 2005, RYOT became the first news site to link stories to direct actions, whether that meant a government petition or a nonprofit’s donation page. 

“You still have to try to present the truth and the facts in a responsible way. [But at RYOT], we’ve never been afraid of taking a stance and providing a call to action,” she says. “We have always blurred the lines between journalism and activism, and we would get pushback a lot from traditional journalists, who would say that we weren’t practicing objective journalism. That was never the point. We set out to be a site that moved people from passive reader or viewer into active participant.”

While other news organizations, such as the Associated Press and the Washington Post, have simply rededicated themselves to strict fact-checking and calling out fake news when they see it, the RYOT model suggests that companies can go a step further by encouraging their readers to take action and become civically involved as a means of combating the ill effects of fake news.  

Of course, companies do not share the full responsibility for exposing the public to fact-based news; there is much that can be done on an individual level. Indeed, many believe the war against fake news will be won through media literacy classes in grade schools. These are programs that will teach students how to evaluate the legitimacy of a news source, cross-reference an article with secondary sources, and identify the hallmarks of a fake news website. A handful of schools across the US have already begun implementing such programs, and several states have taken a legislative approach. Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a bill that will require schools to demonstrate how they will implement media literacy education, and a similar bill has been introduced in California. 

Adults, too, could use a refresher on evaluating their news outlets. 

As Pariser says, “We have to ask ourselves, ‘How do I know that this is true? Where did I get it from? And what is the process by which it reached me? And do I trust those people because we’re on the same team, or because I know they’ve gone through a rigorous process of discernment?’”

Ultimately, there is hope to be found in the midst of all this uproar over fake news. Gallup polls found more Americans this year (27%) say they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers than they did last year (20%), and the percentage of adults who believe that news organizations generally get the facts straight (37%) has remained unchanged since 2003. This is not to say that the distress over a "post-truth landscape" is all for nothing, but rather that the situation may not be as dire as some may think. Yes, fake news exists, and yes, it will be difficult or perhaps impossible to eradicate, but for those in the storytelling and media industries, this is just a challenge that will require creativity to address. Luckily creativity is something they have in abundance.