Written by Gabrielle Price
Fake news was a term many people wouldn’t have used four years ago, but today it poses a serious threat to journalism. Just as the term explains, fake news is false and often sensational information that is disseminated under the guise of news reporting.
As noted by Stephen Harrington it is a phenomenon that has been around since the 20th century, delivering fabrication of news stories to the public including anything from sensational to click bait articles.
With an increase in digital access, the ability to produce and publicise fake news has become easier than ever before. Drastic shifts in the media environment have allowed ordinary people to engage and publish in conversation online, primarily through social media channels.
According to Axel Bruns, this process is known as citizen journalism – a rapidly evolving process that allows for passive consumers to become active producers in a role known as ‘produsage’. As a result, this influx of citizen journalism is escalating the spread and reach of fake news.
Typically, fake news is produced to damage an agency, person or business. This frequently occurs in the world of politics whereby politicians may generate fake news stories during an election to put down a competitor and improve their own public image. Another purpose of fake news is to gain more readership and attract advertising opportunities.
With the upsurge of marketing and advertising creating a chaotic environment, media outlets are under pressure to attract readership in any way possible. By publishing a story with fake news, it may increase their advertising opportunities and improve ratings of readership. In an ideal democracy, information is accessible to all, the electorate is knowledgeable on the political sphere and citizens are able to intelligently participate in decision-making.
However, with fake news sites producing over 100 false articles per week this ideal state seems to be more distant than ever. These statistics further add to the long-term fear of public ignorance of political process from these falsehood sites.
Unfortunately, this false information is posing a serious threat to journalism today. The growing concern of the problem is that it creates the fear that people are unable to differentiate between real and fake news. As a result, this threatens the public trust in journalism.
Another problem stemming from fake news in the contemporary media environment is the distortion of information and education. With fake news and alternative facts becoming a common occurrence through social media platforms, it is changing the way people view journalism.
This spread of fake news is illustrated within the BuzzFeed analysis displaying that the top 20 fake stories of the US Election campaign received more engagement on Facebook than top 20 stories from legacy media sites. As political editor of BuzzFeed Jim Waterson states, “these alternative sites are starting to reach and go viral as much as mainstream media outlets”. This means that people’s vision is distorted and as a result political votes may be based on untrue stores.
As you can imagine, the repercussions for this problem are endless. With the intensity of fake news and alternative facts rising, it is imperative that actions take place to remedy this problem.
So, is it all over for journalists?
No, despite these growing concerns there is a cause of optimism! The increasing availability of initiatives to help differentiate between real and falsehood to the public could improve the issue. These fact-checking initiatives include forums that educate readers on how to identify fake news and media literacy schemes.
These forums check the veracity of answers to popular questions in society as a process of quality control. This is calculated through a specialised dataset that scores the validity and truthfulness of answers, contributing to more effective communication and protection in society.
Some countries like Germany and Malaysia have gone as far as to implement new laws for social media sites to combat the problem and encourage true and factual journalism. The introduction of these initiatives gives hope that the future will entail stricter guidelines and policies to monitor and reduce fake news stories and ultimately create a healthier political environment.