Online news sources have grown significantly in recent years. With this increase, more people are relying on social media sites to discover and share news stories.
According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report of 2016, 51% of a global sample said they use social media as a source of news every week, and about 1 in 10 use social media as a main source of news.
Along with this emerging trend, access to free online platforms as well as tools that simplify the creation of websites have contributed to the spread of unverified stories. Together these factors influence the way news is discovered, consumed, and published.
This article aims to define two important media trends that have sprung up as a result: the proliferation of “fake news” and “echo chambers.” It will also provide insight into the actions of leading media companies to adapt to this changing framework and develop a new model for the future of journalism.
Defining 'fake news'
Throughout 2016 and 2017, “fake news” was used to label misinformation campaigns that used social media and automated bots to intentionally spread false information. It has since evolved to become a toxic media brand used to describe inaccurate news.
To the alarm of many news professionals, politicians have also started using the term to undermine the credibility of unfavorable media outlets. For the sake of this article, the term “fake news” will be used to address any news stories that are simply false or purposely misleading.
According to the Reuters Institute’s 2017 trends and predictions report, by the end of the 2016 US Presidential election, there was actually higher engagement with fake news stories on Facebook than with accurate journalism (see below).
Due to the ease of sharing on social networks, untrue or exaggerated articles can spread quickly. Also, as the accepted definition of “fake news” remains ambiguous, these stories may be difficult to identify.
For these reasons, it has become increasingly important for news publishers to ensure their credibility with audiences in order to maintain a high level of integrity for their readers and to avoid being labeled as fake.
Fact-checking and data-based journalism to combat fake news
According to a 2017 report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy, the issue of fake news can addressed by three primary methods: prioritizing fact-checking, promoting bipartisan discussion, and fostering a collaborative research environment. We have already seen shifts in influential media companies to meet these goals.
At its 2017 F8 conference, Facebook announced plans to outsource fact checking to third parties like Politifact and Snopes in order to provide analysis of claims being made by news outlets online. This year, the Google Digital News Initiative (DNI) also awarded funding to projects such as the British prototype: Fact-checking Automation and Claims Tracking System (FACTS). This platform seeks to be the first to fact-check claims automatically using statistical analysis.
The same report claims, “we should seek stronger future collaborations between researchers and the media.” In addition to reducing the cost of data-based journalism, some publishers are pursuing “open-data” based platforms that focus on shared use of data, research, and user collaboration.
In 2017, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales announced the launch of WikiTribune. “Articles are authored, fact-checked, and verified by professional journalists and community members working side by side as equals,” states the website. The project aims to produce “evidence-based” journalism that is founded on data, research, and user collaboration.
News aggregation and user-interaction to break echo chambers
When it comes to self-tailored media, or “echo chambers,” the main causes are twofold. The first is that many people share and interact with news stories they agree with or of which they approve. In addition, social media users are free to select which media outlets to follow, and which ones to block.
The result is a potential bubble of information that may discourage engagement with challenging viewpoints.
Even more, if the view or information reinforced by these media choices are inaccurate, it may lead to a personalized information trap of unreliable sources. This has created concern among readers who don’t want to miss challenging viewpoints.
To address this issue, some consumers are turning to news aggregators. In fact, according to the Reuters Digital News Report, 57% of respondents said they prefer news aggregators in order to access a variety of sources.
News aggregators like Google News and Yahoo Japan are already quite popular with people whom prefer to receive news from multiple sources.
In China a new app called Bingdu combines news aggregation, user-driven advertisements, and Facebook-style recommendation algorithms to attract around 10 million active users.
Another Google DNI funded initiative comes from Europa Press Comunicación via a news platform that aims to “facilitate the use of open-data both as a source of news and as a fact validation instrument.”
Solutions require collaboration and innovation
The problems of fake news and echo chambers will not be solved overnight. We have already seen a shift in news production by leading media companies to ensure credibility in this changing media ecosystem. Innovative emerging publishers should continue to foster a strong relationship between publishers, readers, and researchers. This is an essential first step in building a more positive media landscape for the future.