In this year’s election, one of the inescapable media trends was the dissemination — in large numbers, across borders, from an ever-growing set of “news organizations” — of news stories light on truth. Many of these stories were produced in “fake news” shops and circulated in ideologically friendly online communities.
While many of these stories were easily disprovable, they nevertheless found millions of people willing to read, comment on, and forward them to other users. Years after Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” today internet users have access to not just tilted news but also fake news, so they can easily locate the truth they want to exist.
In the coming years, the fragmentation of online discourse will allow for many more “truths” to exist. As Colin Agur, Nicholas Frisch, and I recently found out in a recently released Tow/Knight report, mobile chat applications allow private and segmented conversations, different interpretations, and different sets of facts.
While these new digital spaces provide opportunities for democratization of knowledge (e.g. more people can access information) and the emergence of important new players (e.g. digital fixers), they can also allow falsehoods to endure and shape opinion. A recent Stanford study found that the vast majority of middle-school students can hardly tell the difference between real and fake news.
For scholars looking ahead to the coming year, many questions await. What is the outlook for low-information users? How can news organizations develop content that can reach users in private spaces? And given the profits enjoyed by fake news shops in 2016, how can serious news organizations compete? The truth is up for grabs and if 2016 is any guide, we may be in for many surprises.
Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is assistant professor of journalism studies at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.