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November 27, 2016

Fake news sucks but isn't the end of civilization

Because fake news only works if it captures our attention, and because presenting ideas that are outside the normal range is a very effective way to capture our attention, fake news will with some inevitably tend to present extreme positions.

Real news items often uses the same technique these days: serious news stories often will have clickbait headlines. “Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.”Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.

Of course, clickbait is nothing new. Tabloids have been using it forever. For the past thirty years, in the US, local TV stations have featured the latest stabbing or fire as the lead story on the news. (This is usually said to have begun in Miami
, and is characterized as “If it bleeds, it leads,” i.e., it is the first item in the news broadcast.)

At the same time, however, the Internet makes it easier than ever to find news that doesn’t simply try to set our nerves on fire. Fact checking abounds, at sites dedicated to the task and as one of the most common of distributed Internet activities. Even while we form echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs, “we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views”we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views. Indeed, I suspect (= I have no evidence) that one reason we seem so polarized is that we can now see the extremities of belief that have always been present in our culture — extremities that in the age of mass communication were hidden from us.

Now that there are economic reasons to promulgate fake news — you can make a good living at it — we need new mechanisms to help us identify it, just as the rise of “native advertising” (= ads that pose as news stories) has led to new norms about letting the reader know that they’re ads. The debate we’re currently having is the discussion that leads to new techniques and norms.

Some of the most important techniques can best be applied by the platforms through which fake news promulgates. We need to press those platforms to do the right thing, even if it means a marginal loss of revenues for them. The first step is to stop them from thinking, as I believe some of them genuinely do, that they are mere open platforms that cannot interfere with what people say and share on them. Baloney. As Zeynep Tufekci, among others, has repeatedly pointed out, these platforms already use algorithms to decide which items to show us from the torrent of possibilities. Because the major Western platforms genuinely hold to democratic ideals, they may well adjust their algorithms to achieve better social ends. I have some hope about this.

Just as with spam, “native advertising,” and popup ads, we are going to have to learn to live with fake news both by creating techniques that prevent it from being as effective as it would like to be and by accepting its inevitability. If part of this is that we learn to be more “meta” — not accepting all content at its face value — then fake news will be part of our moral and intellectual evolution.

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