I recently attended a the Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Fellowship for emerging journalists focussed on examining and solving the growing issue of disinformation (aka “fake news”) in the modern media landscape.
It was an incredibly powerful program. My cohort had eight young American journalists and eight young German journalists. For a week we toured newsrooms, universities, and other organizations dedicated to restoring public trust in media in DC, New York, and Charlottesville, interviewing experts in their fields about their experiences with this issue.
I learned a whole ton, and feel much better equipped to take on this sometimes seemingly overwhelming issue as both a journalist and an informed media consumer.
I’m planning on doing a lot of writing about the fellowship and our findings, but I just wanted to share some high-level takeaways that I have already started implementing into my reporting and my overall attitudes toward this problem.
Here are three of the many things I learned about disinformation in the media:
1. Disinformation can take many forms, and if we (not just journalists, but we citizens and news consumers) are ever going to be able to talk about the problem with any level of nuance, we need to stop using the phrase “fake news” all together.
It’s not that simply refusing to talk about the problem will make it eventually go away, but the phrase itself has been hijacked by politically-motivated instigators using it to delegitimize negative press coverage, and it is no longer a useful or accurate phrase with which to discuss actual problems of content with the malicious intent to confuse or mislead the public.
Plus, the phrase inherently implies that there are two types of media, “fake news” and “real news.” This is not an accurate or productive way to think about the press. In reality, there are many levels and factors that one needs to consider when evaluating the credibility and authority of a news publisher.
All this to say, the words “fake news” are not going to cut it anymore, and we need to stop using them.
2. This current presidential administration and the political divisiveness that has become a symptom of it are—in many ways—unprecedented in American history, but the problem of disinformation in media is not a new one.
In fact, this is not the first “Fake news phenomenon,” and it will probably not be the last. Dr. Cindy Gueli, an author and American media historian, gave a presentation to my cohort about disinformation throughout American history that was ENDLESSLY enlightening and helpful for putting this phenomenon into a historical context.
History shows us that disinformation trends always emerge and dominate the media landscape after a period of rapid social progression and change, or in a time of great fear and uncertainty, such as wartime. One of the many examples from history that serves as a great example of this trend is the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s and 60s. In a time when the country was going through a rapid cultural change—in the form of civil rights, the sexual revolution and other uprisings of oppressed groups— and widespread fear of nuclear war, disinformation ran wild. Propaganda, false accusations, and widespread confusion swirled. It took us a long time to figure out which way was up.
The year 2016 was very similar. Many Americans were still trying to process what it meant for this country to have elected its first Black president and nominated its first female candidate in a major party. We were finally coming to grips with our disastrous treatment of the environment, and were finally making progress in gaining equal marriage rights for our LGBTQ communities, all while fighting in multiple wars in the Middle East. The historic events—mostly good, but many bad—came together in the perfect storm to give rise to a national and global disinformation phenomenon.
At times, it may feel like destiny is doomed to repeat itself, but I find it incredibly uplifting and encouraging to know that there is historical context and precedent for this issue. We’ve come a long way since McCarthyism, and someday we’ll have come a long way from where we’re standing now.
Human history may seem cyclical at times, but progress is always linear.
3. Adoption of and cooperation with technological advancements are vital to the future of media and journalism.
There’s this idea that if we (now I mean journalists) continue to just do our jobs the same way we’ve always done them—just better and harder and with more feeling—then this will all blow over. This idea, in my experience, is most popular in print newsrooms and other legacy (see: really old) news outlets. While I think there may be a little nugget of truth to this sentiment—because frankly, being better at your job is never a bad idea—it doesn’t offer the radical, scalable, long-term solution that this phenomenon warrants. It just doesn’t.
That solution is only found by meeting the public—and the disinformation—where they already are, which is on social media and online. I know that Facebook and Twitter feel like the last place where it makes sense to fight the rise of disinformation, but journalism cannot continue to be the fourth pillar of our democracy if no one reads it.
There was a time when journalists and people trained in media production were the gatekeepers of information, and had the power to decide what the public was informed about, as well as what they remained in the dark about.
The internet as we know it today has effectively ended that time, and it’s for the better. Today, anyone can publish anything they want on the internet, and our democracy is better for it.
Journalists need to learn new and innovative ways to engage with and embrace this new world order, where everyone stands on a level playing field when it comes to media.
Yes, readers and viewers have a level of responsibility when it comes to the media they consume and pay for, but the media have an obligation to the readers to keep up with the evolving ways that people consume and pay for their media. This requires that we all (journalists) make a sincere and serious effort to collaborate and cooperate with social media and other technologies that are going to make that possible.
Higher ups at Facebook and Twitter have both made it very clear that they want to do better, and we should too.
Simply put, if a fire is burning down a school building, and your fire hose is too short to reach it, you don’t put water on the cafeteria instead. You put the goddamn water in some goddamn buckets and you get it to the burning building. Better yet, you invent a new, longer hose, so you never have this problem again.
This post is much longer than I intended, but once I got writing I simply couldn’t stop. I am so excited to share more learnings and research from the fellowship in the near future.
My question for y’all, because this issue is one that requires lots of combined brain power, is how do you all battle disinformation in your every day lives? Do you like to call out your relatives or friends for sharing clickbait on Facebook? Have you subscribed to any newspapers or other legacy news sources since 2016?