Fake news is not a great term, it just happens to be the term that caught on. Despite being a less than ideal term, the ideas discussed with this term are of critical importance. Fake news over sweetens the news and starves deliberation of useful facts, at the same time, many critiques of fake news are overly simplistic and counter productive.
A number of outlets have been working on the problem of fake news, including Media Matters, The Associated Press, and Facebook itself. I want to take a different tack here and work on the definition of fake news itself.
There are a few aspects of the definition of fake news to this point that are less than ideal: the realm of fakeness has been expanded to include satire and humor, the idea of fakeness seems to arbitrarily include some news commentary but not other news commentary, and finally discussion of the implications of fakeness employs a very simplistic theory of ideology and very strong theory of media effects not supported by research.
All three of these features of fake news discussions need to be challenged. First, satire and jokes are important. A few months back left critics were in despair over the inadequacy of Trevor Noah to continue their work of commentary via the fake news, as if the fake news had an important role in the public sphere. Satire and jokes are a form of political sense-making, they aren’t fake news. Jokes can reveal slippages in meaning and voice, conflicts of value and motive, and the affective environment of the speaker. This is not to say that all jokes are amazing, many jokes are not funny. I know this as many of my jokes are definitely not funny. Second, arbitrary boundaries for fake news are troubling. Conservative retorts that left Liberals only invoke idea of fake news in a partisan fashion or claims that the news sources of the left are also fake are important. Avoiding the question of the main stream misses the argument — the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and many other news sources, even Fox News Channel, try to get it right. The argument that the Washington Post pushes fake news isn’t illegitimate or silly, it needs to be answered. A sloppy scoop based on a false premise is deeply damaging for the credibility of a paper, as is their ownership by a tech conglomerate, although this isn’t as troubling as when the for-profit university wing of the Washington Post owned the Washington Post. Finally, the ideological theory that supposes that voters wouldn’t have voted in the ways that did if not for fake news is condescending and inaccurate. Affect theory has made a number of important contributions to communication research in recent years — one of them is the idea that ideology is not a simple matter of deception or misinformation. People participate in ideology because they want to. The critique of fake news needs to keep in mind that people could read and share fake news because it suits their preferences, not because they don’t know better. Keep in mind, the wheel spinning of cynicism is also deeply troubling. The critique of Fake news becomes an acid that dissolves any media that one disagrees with.
To work toward a stronger definition of fake news I want to go through a few factors to clarify what fake news is and isn’t. These factors include the finance, text, and technology of fake news production.
Fake news has a commercial, non-journalistic mandate. Call me a financial determinist if you must, but we need to start with the money stuff. Mandate is the term used to describe the general structure of a media organization and the ways in which it makes money. The three traditional mandates: commercial, non-commercial, and governmental. Commercial — they are trying to make money, usually through advertising. Non-commercial — they are trying to “uplift” society, financed with donations or state support. Governmental — they are trying to maintain social order and state power, they are financed by the state. Community/DIY/Alternative mandate media has also been recognized, although that generally files into the other three categories but with some twist. Beyond the question of how an organization makes money, it is important to consider the business that the business positions itself as being in. It is a very different matter to be a journalism organization that is commercial than to be an amusement park that is also commercial. To answer the question of the mandate, determine: what business is this business in and how is that business structured? Yes, business appeared several times in that sentence. For example, The New York Times is a publicly traded journalism company producing a national newspaper of record. The Corvallis Gazette Times is a local newspaper owned by Lee Enterprises that produces a paper of local interest to the people of Corvallis, Oregon.
True fake news organizations are not newspapers gone sensational or television stations making an error. Fake news producers are in the business of producing content exclusively for clicks. These organizations have fundamentally different organizational behavior and structure. There are no reporters and editors, just folks going for the optimal viral lift/seed ratio. Regardless of what you think of the editorial position of the Chicago Tribune, it is a fundamentally stronger news organization than meganewz.com
For what it’s worth: meganewz.com is available for $1875.
The fake news text has a few elements: the headline, the image, the short description, and the story itself. The story is both the thing that appears on a card in the feed and the story that includes the story proper.
Fake news relies on hyperbolic or sensational content. I rarely use exclamation points. The fake news industry relies on them. Aside from shocking headlines one of the most common fake news strategies is the revelation of the secret, a classic conspiracy trope.
Fake news contains a good bit of false information. Consider the image of Trump “winning” the popular vote that circulated in the days after the election. If Trump won every county not in New York or California, Clinton wouldn’t have been so close. Secretary Clinton running a child trafficking ring out of a DC area pizza restaurant, definitely fake. This is not to say that all stories that include a piece of information that is inaccurate are fake. Sometimes people are wrong, this doesn’t mean they are evil.
The transition from traditional objective journalism toward opinion journalism is helpful to consider the impact of the creation of alternative forms of news. Traditional news focused on the circulation of facts, the deployment of detail and expert analysis would help to contextualize those facts. Opinion journalism would emphasize the analysis, first in the sense of additional access to experts, and then in the context of experts on expertise, especially sources knowledgable on the horse-race style politics that seem to entertain so many people. Analysis is valuable and cheap compared with the cost of maintaining bureaus around the world.
The truth is affective. I am sure that plenty of folks will stop reading after the preceding sentence. These folks are a pretty substantial part of the problem as they make very strong assumptions that their beliefs are transcendentally correct or are not dependent on persuasion or belief. The style of the news contributes to the authority of the final product. It was not the assertion of truth by traditional journalists that built their ethos, but a combination of their effort, the regulatory framework of that time period, and the style of news in that time period. Three networks operating under the fairness doctrine produced a very particular product. So no, there was no time when there was the truth was transcendental and obvious. News was bland, tended to be well established in facts, and had a compulsory ideological position. Did this position have substantial weaknesses and exclusions? Surely. Many important stories were completely ignored. My point in this paragraph: don’t overestimate the stability, coherence, or quality of mid-century journalism.
Post-truth is not the fault of post-modernists, left or otherwise, and it is not the fault of conservatives looking to build an empire. Assuming that truth shines through complex and contradictory experiences of reality is a common problem in communication theory. You likely know someone who believes that labeling something “science” should give it instantaneous authority, or someone who knows that their formulation of the axioms of free market economics eliminate all need for deliberation or explanation. Foundations make the arguing easy, unfortunately many foundations are far less concrete than they appear. Affect theory in communication research insists upon the idea that feeling must be explained as a foundation for any sort of legitimation. This is not to say that rationality doesn’t exist or is unimportant, but that rationality is a mood like any other. It must be cultivated to persist.
Fake news as we understand it now is online and almost always spread via social media. This is not as important as the technology behind the business model is not the technology that you see as a consumer of fake news, but the platforms that allow the producers of fake news to place their product in social feeds and the interfaces that allow them to make their money. No advertiser would intentionally place their content alongside fake news. Seriously, why would Kleeenex or Cocoa Puffs want to be on a page with obvious crap? As many producers of marginal videos discovered recently, advertisers only have limited patience when they discover that they are paying for ad placements that they despise. This is the deepest technological magical formulation the fake news world: there are interfaces that allow for traffic alone to be converted into actual money. Frankly, these interfaces are the most important part of this puzzle — at no other time after the Paramount Decree has there been a technology that has extracted so much cash out of companies with so little control.
Fake news could easily be understood to be an arbitrage technology that connects cheap placements in the newsfeed with much more valuable clicks on the back end. The texts produced to fill this gap in the circuit diagram are not journalistic texts as such but are intended only to serve this particular affective sparking role — these texts could literally say anything. There are left versions of this content, they just work a little differently. Instead of fabricating facts or other information the left alternative tends to focus on simplistic opinion and analysis. It is not as bad, but is still troubling.
Well done news provides information that drives democratic deliberation and the bounded rationality of governance. Fake news tends to amplify the worst tendencies of the public sphere toward fear, conspiracy, and sadism. The end of that list is what is truly scary from my perspective. Many of our institutions were designed assuming effective bargaining games where rewards and punishments could both be utilized, generally more rewards though. In the current discourse environment the preference seems to be for punishment. Fake news provides reinforcement for these instincts already present in the public sphere. It role plays as the worst and gives license to behave badly. Vituperative norms come to dominate a media ecology where sources of information and affect on the margins tend to suggest the worst. Fake news is not the first cause of damage to the public sphere (the sadistic turn in American culture is) but it is an amplifier.
Defining Fake News
What it is: social media news stories that feature sensational headlines referring to untrue information. These stories are produced by actors who are not mandated to do journalism and are remunerated by online ad networks.
What it is not: fake news is not news where one disagrees with the conclusions of the analysis of facts, detects a partisan position in the writing of an article, or finds a newspaper that published something of questionable editorial value.
Of course some fake news could be published for purposes other than making money, the commercial mandate. This other sort of fake news should be called by the more appropriate name: propaganda. Ethical and professional norms associated with professional journalism can effectively guide news producers to make content that might more effectively inform the public. Contrary to the call for more editorial content, the solution is to strive for journalism now, more than ever. Good content can eventually beat bad content if the public can develop a taste for it. This will not be as satisfying as the turn to opinion. Loudly denouncing Trump let’s you strike a satisfying pose. Statuesque poses feature locked knees, these are not athletic positions, they aren’t agile. Structurally, more than adding editorial information to the FB feed, the best thing that these companies can do is to add a circuit breaker where the click compensation cycle can be broken. If I am right about the conditions of possibility for fake news this change in finance would cause the true fake news to fall away, revealing propaganda for what it is.