Much has been said and written about fake news. It all boils down to this: It’s the arch nemesis of journalism. The moment you get involved, you get infected. You draw attention to this nonsense, spreading rumors by debunking them.
So far, we’ve ignored the worst rumors, the most absurd conspiracy theories. When they went low, we stood clear. But does this work anymore? We face a dilemma: We can ignore the fake news and become part of the story. (See what they don’t tell you!) Or we can take rumors seriously, invest resources, and fact-check them. (If they deny it, it must be true!)
How do you argue with people for whom facts are negotiable? How do you reach out to people who are opposed to the principles of journalism? Because it’s not enough to warn our users about fake news: We need to reach the users who stay away from us. We need to enter the filter bubbles where conspiracy theories flourish, to understand the attraction, aesthetics, and economics of fake news, the mechanisms by which rumors spread on social media and enter search results. Then, we need to use this knowledge to disrupt the self-enforcing circle of rumors and fake news.
We need to vaccinate the public with real journalism: explaining in detail how we come to a conclusion, how facts are gathered, what should be considered a fact and why — how journalism works.
One could argue that we’re not responsible — that parents, schools, and others are to blame. While there might be some truth to that, it doesn’t help. Un-faking the news is no easy task. It doesn’t promise us a pot of gold. And we won’t convince everyone. But it’s our civic duty to try, because we can’t entrust technology companies with editorial decisions. And we certainly cannot let governments and their agencies decide what’s newsworthy and what’s not.
This task requires journalists and publishers that care deeply about democracy and freedom of speech. When fake news hits, we need to hit back, vigorously.