Real Talk About Fake News

from the a-rare-thing dept

At this point, the category of “fake news” has become all but meaningless — a trajectory many of us saw coming the moment we first heard the words or saw the hashtag. That doesn’t mean the underlying problems aren’t real; many people who talk about “fake news” are trying to express real concern about genuinely troubling trends, but the nebulous label isn’t doing them any favors, and is in fact diverting attention from the heart of the issue. With thousands of words a day being expended on the subject with little to no visible progress on understanding it, and companies like Facebook unveiling fact-checking features that may prove to be interesting experiments but are unlikely to make much difference in the long run, it’s rare and refreshing to see someone actually get things right. That’s why if you’re interested in the “fake news” phenomenon, you should read Danah Boyd’s new post about the real problems that we can’t expect internet platforms to magically address:

I don?t want to let companies off the hook, because they do have a responsibility in this ecosystem. But they?re not going to produce the silver bullet that they?re being asked to produce. And I think that most critics of these companies are really naive if they think that this is an easy problem for them to fix.

Too many people seem to think that you can build a robust program to cleanly define who and what is problematic, implement it, and then presto — problem solved. Yet anyone who has combatted hate and intolerance knows that Band-Aid solutions don?t work. They may make things invisible for a while, but hate will continue to breed unless you address the issues at the source. We need everyone — including companies — to be focused on grappling with the underlying dynamics that are mirrored and magnified by technology.

There?s been a lot of smart writing, both by scholars and journalists, about the intersection of intolerance and fear, inequality, instability, et cetera. The short version of it all is that we have a cultural problem, one that is shaped by disconnects in values, relationships, and social fabric. Our media, our tools, and our politics are being leveraged to help breed polarization by countless actors who can leverage these systems for personal, economic, and ideological gain. Sometimes, it?s for the lulz. Sometimes, the goals are much more disturbing.

That’s just one small portion of a piece that is well worth reading in full. Boyd brings some highly relevant experience to the discussion: in the early days of Blogger, she worked for the platform doing all sorts of content moderation work and handling customer complaints, addressing things like online harassment and content policies when those issues were just emerging in a blogging world that was still taking shape. She knows firsthand that it’s essentially impossible to draft and enforce a consistent content policy that can’t be abused and isn’t itself abusive, and it’s worrying but not surprising to hear her say that even the experts working on these issues inside social media companies can’t stay consistent when describing the problem they want to fix.

Of course, Boyd doesn’t claim to have her own silver-bullet solution either, but her proposed approach — designing platforms and mechanisms to encourage the bridging of ideological gaps and world views — is certainly a much smarter and more useful way of thinking about the problem, calling for creative innovation to encourage better speech over the never-ending battle to suppress “bad” speech, even if it’s still not immediately clear how it can be put into practice. In any case, we need much more discussion like this in place of people crying “fake news” and assuming everyone else is on board with their own personal, arbitrary definition of those words.

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Comments on “Real Talk About Fake News”

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Anonymous Coward says:

My take.

All this “fake news” BS is one of the late stages of the powers that be noting that the Internet its the greatest communication platform ever invented over the course of human history and freaking the hell out that they can’t control every damn aspect of it like they previously controlled every other form of communication.

My vote, let the bastards that want to control and censor the internet wallow in their soiled underpants, while the rest of us read and write what we want and use our good sense to figure out what we believe and what we don’t…..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My take.

Look at how hard the church and aristocracy fought the previous major communications revolution, the printing press. It led to the reformation, and the hundred years war. Lets hope this time those whose power is threatened by the Internet, Governments and large corporations, do not instigate that level of violence. as society tries to gain the power they were promised by democratic governments.

AEIO_ (profile) says:

Re: My take.

"use our good sense to figure out what we believe and what we don’t."

What — what — WHAT?!? You want people to actually think for themselves and not just blindly believe whatever narrative is convenient for the current commentator clamoring for their consideration?

You, Sir, need to visit your nearest Education Center ASAP. I’ll let them know you’re coming so they can prepare an extra dose of helpfulness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My take.

Problem with this philosophy (and I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment!) is that what happens when everything, and I do mean everything, is propaganda, lies, damned lies, and half truths? What if both the powers-that-be and the opposition are wrong? Where do you go for news since you certainly can’t trust the rumor mill or word of mouth either (ever play telephone as a kid?).

So it’s good to have freedom of belief, but it’s naive to believe you’ll necessarily find the unvarnished truth somewhere because hand-waving-vague-idea will create real news for you to believe in. Will you even recognize the truth when you see it or will you stick to your world view when it’s opposed?

What’s the answer? No idea. The problem has been around as long as humans have been able to communicate and learned to have a power agenda. If someone could have solved it easily, it would have been done already.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: "Alice" in Wonderland

A hundred years ago, maybe people were better at figuring out what was fake and what was real. Life was much harder.

Now we live in a fake world surrounded by fakeness. Fake food, fake grass, fake boobs, fake leather, fake hair, fake music, and fake reality tv. Why should fake news seem any less real.

Anonymous Coward says:


Quick question: Did any of the following exist before the invention of the internet?

Death threats, hate speech, racism, intolerant religions, bullying, and abuse.

No? Then the internet didn’t cause them. It is beyond conceit to suggest the platforms that have sprung up on the internet could ever hope to solve them.

My_Name_Here says:

Re: Conceit

Easy to brush it off as “not the internet’s fault” but harder to explain the reality that the net and the net alone has brought to us.

The internet has not just created faster communications, it has also created new social situations, commons, and areas where we interact with our peers and others. Rather than it being the 10 people in your class or the three guys next to you at the bar, it’s the whole world, as close as that at all times.

The internet didn’t create the things you mention, but just a like an electric guitar and a Marshall stack, it has made the noise of them louder than anything else. So now the rest of the band is drowned out, and what you see and hear the most is that loud, grinding sound and nothing else. It’s great if you like that sort thing but perhaps a bit too much in some situations.

The internet (and the platforms) make bullying, hating, and intolerance maintstream ideas. Many would say that Trump got elected on all of those – but seems to be failing as a President using them.

it’s modern communications that have done it, and the internet is part of it. Trying to say it’s blameless is to ignore all that it encourages and permits.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Conceit

You say that as if those things you decry are being flung at all of us all of the time. That’s not true. While people often behave badly online (even here in the TD comments!) you see what you choose to see (hence the Report button).

I visit TD for tech news and views, I also spend a lot of time on Twitter. On Twitter I carefully curate my viewing experience, only following those accounts that cater to my personal biases. If bullying, hating, and intolerance are mainstream it’s because we choose to indulge in it. There’s the problem.

If you’re being harassed on Twitter, etc., block or mute. Report if it’s particularly egregious. Heck, we do that here with the Report button: the community greys out those posts they don’t want clogging up their screens. I’m not sure how many votes it takes but I know it takes a good few.

So, then, what is the issue here? People who behave badly have a platform and a megaphone. Well so do the talk radio shock jocks. Should we get them off the air? If you’ve noticed the proliferation of alt-right anarchists in office at the moment that’s down to talk radio more than the internet. David Brat was one beneficiary.

Modern communications doesn’t make us horrible, though it does make it easier to be horrible. We, not the platforms, are the problem. The solution is more engagement. People need to talk TO each other, not AT each other.

David says:

Re: Re:

Well, the evidence is pretty damning, isn’t it? Hillary and her ilk were child abusing in the basement of the pizza parlor, and when the pizzagator wanted to bust them, the basement wasn’t even there! Can you imagine the effort to make a basement disappear?

If that doesn’t look fishy, I don’t know what does. It’s Moonraker all over again.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Judge a man by his friends, or obsolete news

You can get your news from the Bible. You’re just uselessly out of date. You can refer to Jestin Coler and not ever google him but go on for two sentences about him and still not bother googling him.

All that tells me is you’re not just out of date… but lazy as well. Further, because you did spend the two sentences to show your pride at your slothfulness I sense you’re just ripe to be punished for your deadly sin.

I refer you back to your bible for sentencing.


DannyB (profile) says:

Re: SHOULD they have a responsibility?

Owning the platforms should not give one the right to spread outright disprovable lies and made up stories and conspiracy theories. Doing so is very much against the public interest. It is against the public good. Just like dumping pollution into a public resource such as the air or water.

At the very least, it is false and fraudulent advertising to call it “news”. Call it “The National Enquirer”. Or Fox Nutcases.

The FCC required radio and tv to carry news, because doing so was in the public interest.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: SHOULD they have a responsibility?

I’ve never seen a more anti 1st amendment post here before.

There’s a ready-made template already in Amendment XXI:

Section 1.

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Replace “eighteenth” with “first” and, voila, Congress can present it to the states for ratification.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There are a lot of types of "responsibility". I’d say many platforms have a social responsibility to be part of an ongoing process to help encourage quality content and discourage false, abusive, etc. content, and that we as their users and customers should hold them partly accountable on that front. They have a role to play and I’d like to see them be/remain a committed, productive part of the conversation. That’s not the same as saying they don’t have a right to run their platform however they want.

ECA (profile) says:


Newspapers went threw it, TV went thru it..

They all started as Good things,
First came NEWS, Just straight news and information.
Then NEWSPAPERS and TV, CONDENSED..They were bought out.

Then came Comments, it went from Editorial section to the FRONT PAGE..
Then MORE personal OPINION and IDEALS then anything else..
THEN Many went the BS, Standard..

When we had 1 truth it was fine..When we had 100 opinions, it wasnt BAD..

But something happened AFTER WWII..
Its asif, our Gov. and nation LEARNED something form Hitler. The old science books told us ALLOT about what COULD be done, and WHAT NOT to do.. Boy SCOUTS TAUGHT you something, out in the woods.
More and MORE information is Buried..NOT just NOT taught..but almost forgotten.. So that we dont remember that Ammonia and bleach are good cleaners, (DONT MIX) and are CHEAP…but you have to GO OUT and buy something ELSE thats 10-100 times the price.
Example..Who remembers HOW/WHEN/WHY you tune an Engine??

Anonmylous says:

What can we do about it?

Here’s the thing I think everyone is failing to comment on…

What is with this deranged insistence that someone else solve it? “Fake” news is a problem, yet everyone and their dog is trying to pass the buck on how to deal with it. Government is clueless so wants to regulate the issue into Big Tech’s lap. Big Tech is clueless cause the internet really doesn’t work that way so they are trying to throw it back. The people want something done about it, but ask them what should be censored and you get back as many different answers as people you ask.

The only way to fight bigotry, hatred, falsehood, etc is with facts and truth and MORE speech. Anonymity is not really an issue if you stick to your guns and counter such speech every time. But what you cannot do is stick your fingers in your ears, screw your eyes shut and yell “LALALALALALA” until the bad words all go away. You wanna see hate and stupidity and ignorance and deception slink back into the shadows, then you HAVE to fight it when you see it. No free passes, no “someone else will do it”.

Its all on us to do it, not the government, not the tech companies. This is our freedom, not theirs, and they don’t get to manage or control it for us.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: What can we do about it?

Yes. Sensible counterspeech is one thing. Teaching critical thinking is another. But one of the reasons i think people want someone else to “do something about it” (like, what, really) is that they view their fellow citizens as sponges for stupidity in at least certain capacities, and not without some reason. Of course, the ones clamoring for someone else to do something are failing just as hard.

Of course, considering how often people don’t read an actual article in the first place, but “inform” themselves from a headline or maybe a blurb if they are so moved, I don’t think the “fake news” makes so much of a difference in the first place. It merely exposes the underlying problems.

While bullshit in all forms is a problem, having a moral panic, and over the wrong thing, and asking someone to take nebulous powers and fix it is the absolutely incorrect answer.

TechDescartes (profile) says:

Re: Re: FakeNews == BigLie

"FakeNews == BigLie" could return true or false (i.e., you’re just testing for equality without disclosing a result). You must mean that "FakeNews = BigLie" (i.e., modern politicians have set the value of "FakeNews" to equal the "BigLie" used by former politicians).

But then, that raises a new question. What’s the data type? If it’s a boolean, are you suggesting that "BigLie" is set to "true"? Or is "BigLie" set to "false"?

I’m confused.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Blame not the medium

The Internet is the greatest single advancement in communication delivery mechanism in the last fifty years but it’s still only EVOLUTIONARY.

Print gave man the ability to send messages over distances. Telegraphs added distance, and newspapers added quick turnaround of information. Some of the stuff in newspapers wasn’t factual. We call that “fiction”.

Radio took what was in print and added a voice to it, making it available to many more people and more often and at an “easier” appeal than reading newsprint. Some of the stuff on the radio wasn’t factual. We call that “fiction”. You may have heard of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds scare. That did not lead to a call to censor radio as well it shouldn’t.

Television took what was on radio and added images to it, making it available to yet many more people and with an appeal that merely listening to the box wouldn’t get. Some of the stuff on the television wasn’t factual. We call that “fiction”. You may have heard of Three’s Company, All in the Family, Married With Children, Dallas, etc. These did not lead to a call to censor TV as well it shouldn’t.

The Internet took what was on Television and allowed EVERYONE to participate. The gatekeepers of the N major US networks or the government broadcasters abroad no longer prevented ANY OF US from publishing, creating stories, audio, video, which includes fact reporting as well as fiction.

Calls for censoring “the Internet” are a mislabeled cry to censor PEOPLE. The Internet is just a medium, and it’s actually barely that — it’s more a carrier mechanism that allows real media (audio, video, VR, text, graphics, etc.) to allow communication between one to one or one to many or many to many.

Censorship of a communication mechanism shouldn’t be discussed lightly, and when that mechanism is what has provided the biggest boost to human communication in half a century even less lightly, and when the excuse of the day is fake news, well, consider this:

Four years ago the following would have been censored under these “ideas”: Donald Trump, his daughter, and her husband, now control the US government.

And that — as we say — is not fake news.


Anonymous Coward says:

Caveat lector

All news is “fake news” to someone unable or unwilling engage in critical thinking. The problem isn’t that “fake news” is fake, but that people blindly believe it’s true.

Those people can’t be helped by telling them what they’ve read is false and expecting them to in turn blindly believe that. Even if successful, this only perpetuates the problem.

They can only be helped by teaching them to think for themselves.

Thad (user link) says:

I really like Danah Boyd’s work (no relation, BTW, just in case anybody noticed we share a last name). She’s been doing a fantastic job for years of pointing out the kinds of fallacies programmers and managers believe WRT deterministic technical solutions to complex social problems.

There are ways to deal with the proliferation of fraudulent news articles. But all of them (at least, all the decent ones) involve reasonable people making judgement calls that won’t always be cut and dried and will never make everybody happy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

How about “survival of the fittest” as a technique? Let everybody say anything they want wherever they want, without editorial. Then, let the business models work themselves out. For example, Fox News is gaining market share (maybe Thad is Tucker Carlson) at the expense of their competitor’s market share. Eventually, market forces will favor those that have more interesting and enlightening stories that people prefer over the others. Where is Walter Cronkite when you need him? “And that’s the way it is”. I always loved that. Don’t forget that our jury system fundamentally relies on the same quality and hidden talent of people. They may be uninformed in some areas, but give them a little time, and they will work out a pretty good answer to tough questions like these.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Eventually, market forces will favor those that have more interesting and enlightening stories that people prefer over the others.

Which is not at all the same thing as stories that are accurate and informative. It’s the rabid partisanship of Fox, the slightly less rabid partisanship of MSNBC (they give Scarborough three hours a day, after all), the breathless coverage of a missing plane by CNN, the clickbait of Buzzfeed, the celebrity gossip of TMZ, and, yes, fraudulent news circulated on Facebook.

In other words, a race to the bottom. Journalism by way of appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Don’t forget that our jury system fundamentally relies on the same quality and hidden talent of people.

True. And while our jury system is flawed, it beats the alternative. It’s like the famous Churchill quote about democracy: it’s the worst system of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

They may be uninformed in some areas, but give them a little time, and they will work out a pretty good answer to tough questions like these.

I hope so. I wish the process were a little quicker.

Digitari says:

Famous quotes..

Bruce Lee once said, “be water, my friend.” So everyone thought to be like water was “cool”. However, Being like water means you follow the path of least resistance, which is awesome in Martial arts, but not so much in critical thinking. Most folks in your life follow the rule of “work smarter not harder” ( Ducktails reference )ergo “maximum output for minimum input” These axioms do not translate well when trying discerning the truth or facts that matter; “Old habits die hard”

Ninja (profile) says:

I think that we have to start by teaching tolerance to differences as early as to toddlers. Older people are much harder to change than the younger ones. We should also stop letting people encapsulate themselves in ideological bubbles with only stuff they agree. Facebook enables and encourages such bubbles. And when people are yanked out of their bubbles into real world they get scared. And they get violent.

There are other initiatives that could work and should be tried together but we reduce ‘fake news’ from spreading using a multi-pronged approach. I don’t expect any meaningful measures to be adopted any time soon.

John85851 (profile) says:

Who do you trust

I think another problem with fake news is that too many people don’t know what to trust any more.
How long have the Republicans spent discrediting places like CNN, MSNBC, and even the BBC as the “lamestream media”. So if we can’t trust the BBC, who do we trust for balanced reporting? Certainly not Fox, which is basically a mouthpiece for the Republicans.

And I see this play out all the time on Facebook:
Person #1 posts a link to a website with an obviously fake story.
Person #2 posts a link to Snopes showing that the story was discredited 3 years ago.
Person #1 then gets upset: “Who made Snopes in charge of the truth? Who are they to say what’s right and wrong?”

Yet a 10-second Google search would have shown Person #1 that the story is false before she shared or posted it.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Who do you trust

Per my lefty friends, the BBC has become the mouthpiece of the Tory party. I wonder if discussion of scrapping the licence fee has anything to do with it?

Their website has this article, in case you think they might be wrong:

Basically, when the gentrification brigade push up house prices GTFO, plebs. Notice that the writer isn’t asking whether or not it is reasonable to drive workers before the gentrifiers like cattle. I’m basically conservative but damn it, this ain’t right. Are they really suggesting that homes and communities are but for the rich?

So yeah, I’d take the BBC with a hefty pinch of salt till their reports quit using loaded language like the crap in that article. seethe

Elain says:

Truthy seems to be trying pretty hard to come up with an online tool that can separate truth from trash. I tried out their Hoaxy tool recently and it still needs a bit of work, but the idea is that you type in the key words from any suspicious ‘news’ piece you see doing the rounds, and then it spits out a visual graph showing what accounts and websites are associated with it. The only downside is that it requires you to have a basic awareness of what dodgy social media users look like/how they behave, and which websites are known for fudging facts (Breitbart for example).

So like I said, it could use some work, but they do seem to be forging ahead in the right direction. For anyone who is interested, their site is located at:

Also, is a site that tracks unproven or disproven ‘news’ pieces appearing in the European media, with a specific focus on disinformation coming out of Russia:

I’d be interested to see if anyone else has come across any similar websites or tools that can help us discern truth from trash.

I’d tend to disagree that fakenews is an ineffectual label. As a journalist myself, I know that the media gets away quite a bit of conscious manipulation of information, but that manipulation is at least subject to regulations and public bodies which enforce them, so it’s limited. Fakenews on the other hand, is straight up falsification. The constant stream of stories that pour out of the altright, claiming that every dark skinned person who is caught in a criminal act is a “Muslim refugee” even though 99% of the time they are neither, is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Yes, all manipulation of facts is wrong and most serious journalists deplore it, but what the bona fide fakenews outlets are doing to whip up hatred against minorities is truly alarming… more so because no one can regulate it, which means it’s allowed to seep into the global consciousness and fester unchecked.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’d tend to disagree that fakenews is an ineffectual label. As a journalist myself, I know that the media gets away quite a bit of conscious manipulation of information, but that manipulation is at least subject to regulations and public bodies which enforce them, so it’s limited. Fakenews on the other hand, is straight up falsification.

The trouble with that approach is that large numbers of people – including the person who introduced the term "fake news" into mainstream discourse, Donald Trump himself – do not use the term that way.

Yes, you might be able to argue that if the term were properly and narrowly used, it would be a useful and appropriate and even helpful addition to the discussion.

But it is not used that way, and there is effectively zero chance of narrowing its use to that more limited scope – so there is no possibility of being able to safely assume that when someone uses the term they mean that narrow sense, and therefore the term is useless for actually conveying that meaning.

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