Fake news is a hot button issue right now and one we’ve covered a couple of times at Process Street.
Normally, the discussion of fake news is a roundly negative affair.
How do we come back from consistently lowering journalistic standards? What does this mean for society?
In this article, I’m going to put a more positive face on and explain why there’s good reason to believe quality journalism is going to make a comeback – it may have already begun!
- We’ll look at broadly what fake news is, and why it isn’t a wholly new phenomena.
- We’ll look at the financial performance of different media outlets and try to understand what economic motivations there are in the industry, plus how that impacts on content.
- We’ll look at the new wave of journalistic opportunities and what you can do to help!
What is fake news and how did we get here?
Fake news is a growing worry and a label normally given to incorrect or intentionally misleading information presented as fact.
However, the lines blur between intentionally irresponsible journalism and poorly researched writing. The Washington Post interviewed 38 year old Paul Horner who produced fake news for profit – knowing that what he was producing was false.
He saw it as an easy way to make money at the expense of people whose critical thinking skills weren’t quite up to scratch. In his words:
Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore
Buzzfeed News did a report looking at media output in the build up to the 2016 US elections. They found that fake news was prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum:
A BuzzFeed News analysis found that three big right-wing Facebook pages published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analyzed, and three large left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts.
The important thing within the Buzzfeed study is that they weren’t looking only at publications producing journalism and online content, but looking at these new forms of media distribution – in this instance, Facebook groups and pages.
It seems to be a crucial distinction to make, because the modern phenomena of fake news cannot be separated from these two key features:
- Intentionally false or misleading reporting
- Unaccountable viral distribution networks
These two factors need to be recognized because fake news, ultimately, is not new.
Ye olde fake news
In 1835, the New York Sun reported that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon using new telescope technology…
of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle.
The paper claimed the astronomer had seen bison, winged beavers, and “man-bats”.
More recently, in 1989, 96 Liverpool Football Club supporters died when safety standards were not met during a football match, leading to a crush within one of the stands.
The tragedy has turned into a scar on British society after The Sun newspaper published a front page headline: The Truth. The Sun smeared the Liverpool supporters and alleged that fans of the team had been pickpocketing the dead, urinating on bodies, and attacking the police.
A 2016 inquest into the Hillsborough disaster revealed that the claims made by The Sun were false, and the potential collusion between the South Yorkshire police, the Conservative government, and the newspaper in order to pervert justice is being further investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Fake news is not new, whatever its motivation may be.
What makes fake news particularly dangerous at the moment is its role within a viral media landscape.
The ease of distribution through a series of influential social media nodes can allow for claims to go viral and reach millions of impressionable readers before corrections or nuanced explanations can combat it.
Winston Churchill is often credited with the quote:
A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
But in an article about fake news it would seem inappropriate to leave out that there is little evidence he ever said this. Instead, I’ll give you this Jonathan Swift version from 1710:
Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction
Subscriptions to high-trust publications are booming
While fake news has been very effective many traditional media companies have seen a solid rise in performance too, both in terms of readership and finances.
Traditional media outlets with high levels of trust which have implemented pay walls have begun to see the financial returns for their perceived quality.
As reported in CNN’s Money section, the New York Times and the Washington Post have both seen their subscriber rate increase dramatically in recent years.
This has been the story of The Times for several years: a growing dependence on subscribers to offset difficulties on the advertising side.
While in the UK, the Financial Times, The Times, The Economist, and Private Eye are all seeing their subscriber count rise dramatically, particularly within the global market. These highly reputable sources now realize they have an international audience who feel starved of quality.
With this subscription model, these providers are able to focus more on the standard of their journalism and avoid having to pander to audiences for shareability or clicks.
You won’t believe what happened when the public wised up to clickbait! (Paragraph 4 will blow your mind!)
When sites benefited from pay per click ads the intention was to drive up traffic. At this point in time, clickbait was seen as a huge problem.
In August 2016, The Huffington Post ran an article declaring The Death Of Click Bait Is Finally Here. The article cuts to the heart of the problem – websites need to make money to survive and pay per click ads were shaping the industry.
Media websites are basically glorified advertising engines. You are attracted to visit the website because you want to read the content. The content serves to satiate your mental palate, meanwhile the real goal is to get you to view more ads from sponsors and click on them.
But the gravy train of Upworthy clicks cannot last forever.
The primary problem with click bait – amongst countless others – is that it’s been so abused that avid readers and would-be clickers have become increasingly wary of any questionable title.
People have since grown wise to clickbait and hype marketing and this has impacted on its effectiveness. However, this is just part of the reasons for its demise.
A reduction in ad revenue has decreased the incentive to produce it. That partly stems from less people clicking, but it also speaks to broader trends across the industry…
Facebook and Google’s algorithms define the industry
Colin Morrison, writing for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, reports ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s comments after stepping down in 2015:
He said it had forecast online revenues of £100m. In the end, the newspaper’s digital turnover was £81.9m – down 2.3% on 2014 “because it all went to Facebook. They are taking all the money” because “they have algorithms we don’t understand, which are a filter between what we do and how people receive it. This is going to get worse because they have a means of distribution which we simply can’t cope with and the more people switch on to these devices, the more problematic that question is going to get.”
The online advertising model which newspapers had been using was suddenly not as prosperous.
Less people wanted to click on ads on webpages and less companies were looking to advertise through newspapers – opting instead for the more targeted options of Facebook advertising and Google.
The economic conditions were shifting and the material factors which encouraged websites to create clickbait were reducing.
The power of Facebook was demonstrated not just by pulling advertisers away from articles and onto its own platforms, but in what they chose to promote or hide on people’s timelines.
Facebook announced the start of their attempts to beat clickbait in a 2014 blog post:
A small set of publishers who are frequently posting links with click-bait headlines that many people don’t spend time reading after they click through may see their distribution decrease in the next few months. We’re making these changes to ensure that click-bait content does not drown out the things that people really want to see on Facebook.
Facebook was one of clickbait’s main distribution channels; popping up uninvited in someone’s feed and tempting them with provocative titles or images. Once Facebook had taken a stand against clickbait, its days were numbered.
In the same vein, the current moral panic has encouraged non-state actors like Facebook and Google to change their policies in order to attempt to tackle fake news – benefiting better quality journalism.
Facebook have different ways they try to secure high quality content, as this screenshot from an article about the algorithmic presence of memes on Facebook demonstrates:
Big Zuck himself explained at the end of 2016 some of the steps he wanted to take in order to combat the spread of fake news. These steps included:
- Easier reporting of fake news
- Flagging content which has been reported as dubious
- Better ad farm detection
- Building a system which can detect which articles will be flagged by users before users have flagged them.
This Minority Report future sounds effective but has yet to show its worth. After the tragic Las Vegas shooting both Facebook and Google inadvertently ended up promoting multiple conflicting fake narratives in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
The Gateway Pundit ran with the headline: Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army after going on the Facebook profile of an individual who was not the shooter and combing through his Facebook likes. You can find an archived version of the article here.
According to the Guardian, Facebook’s Safety Check page – intended to help families and friends connect with their loved ones – ended up promoting these stories under the guise of breaking news.
There’s clearly still work to do, and we can’t just hope that Facebook’s magic algorithms can solve the problems all on their own.
How the subscription model improved television
“But Adam”, I hear you ask. “Why does this mean subscriptions can help?”
It doesn’t, necessarily. But a media outlet which can focus on creating quality content with high standards of journalistic integrity (and ideally, financial independence) is going to be a much better addition to the field than another click farm. The security to focus on quality can be found in a number of ways, but the most effective seems to be the solid recurring monthly revenues of a subscription model.
It’s what the big players mentioned earlier in the article use – and it works very well for them.
Creative content exists in a symbiotic relationship with the economic conditions surrounding it. Ian Leslie, in a fantastic free-to-access article for the Financial Times notes:
Fabien Accominotti, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, has studied the Paris art market between 1870 and 1930, when a succession of radically innovative movements emerged — Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism — along with a new class of superstar artists, such as Monet and Picasso. Reading art history books, it is easy to assume that this flourishing was a happy accident coinciding with the arrival of some exceptionally gifted artists. Accominotti argues that to understand the art, you need to follow the money.
Leslie goes on to explain the relationship between the artists of the current Golden Age of Television and the money which funds them. He draws a connection between the break up of the television market from just the big studios to a series of competing organizations – away from the segmented shows, timetabled, and stuffed with ad breaks, to new modes of consumption.
Shows tended towards simplicity because simplicity sells, which opened space for new more challenging media.
If a large and inattentive audience was more valuable to broadcasters than a small and loyal one, then for HBO it was the other way around. Funded by subscription, it didn’t have to worry about ratings but it did have to make viewers feel it had something worth paying for. The rise of what the cultural critic Anna Leszkiewicz calls “the avid viewer” therefore represented an opportunity. HBO already had a niche in the market; now there was a market in the niche.
HBO wasn’t successful because it had a subscription but because it understood how that subscription allowed it to explore and service its niche.
Leslie claims The Sopranos was the iconoclastic show HBO needed to break the accepted norms of television and deliver complex, slow burning, morally difficult programming. Mad Men, Rome, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones… all owe a debt to this break through. The emergence of Netflix and Prime are seen as the natural continuation of this pattern:
“Streaming is the culmination of a change that has been coming for decades,” Joe Lewis, of Amazon Studios, told me. “If there are just three TV networks, and one TV in the house, then your goal is to get viewers to not turn you off. When there’s a huge number of great shows worthy of your time, and lots of TVs, or TV-enabled devices, in the house, the challenge becomes getting someone to turn your show on — which means turning that person on.”
Imagine this mentality in the context of clickbait and journalism. Or in the historical change of moving from print media with your one trusty source to online, where sources abound.
What Leslie demonstrates is that in a pluralistic landscape, the quality of television declined when competing for ratings, but increased dramatically when it’s aim was to provide quality for a captive subscribed audience.
This in itself doesn’t destroy fake news.
The subscriber model does nothing against hyper-partisan political smears, but it does systematically discourage the low effort fake news that aims to make money through hits and clicks.
The subscription model could help save journalism
With increasing prevalence of poor journalism, perhaps more people are willing to pay for quality. This, in turn, creates a large body of free-to-access journalism from these organizations which aim to demonstrate their quality rather than pander to clicks.
A couple of key changes have been occurring in the industry, and we’ll take a moment to explore 3 of them to see what companies are aiming to do in order to understand potential future changes to the media landscape.
Patreon allows readers to support writers whose contribution they appreciate
Patreon has become a standard income stream for popular content creators across different mediums. Many Youtube videos end with a quick 5 second credits-esque stream of a list of their patrons.
Writers like Richard Seymour, the left wing commentator who straddles the lines between political commentary and academic critique, utilize this kind of platform to service their niche directly and have readers provide small monthly contributions.
These personalized connections give the writer space to create stronger connections to their readers – including round ups of daily news as well as long form content. Some of the work might be public and other articles will be locked for subscribers only.
Over the past year, Patreon has over doubled its number of patrons and in September 2017 it secured a further $60 million of funding. This suggests we’ll continue to see more of Patreon over the coming years and perhaps a flourishing of individual content creation across different mediums.
The key stat relevant to our article is Patreon’s claim:
Creators earn 50x to 10,000x more on Patreon from a direct fan membership than they earn from a fan’s advertising revenue cuts.
Medium is creating a blogging ecosystem where anyone can get paid
Unlike Patreon, where people choose to support specific writers, Medium is aiming to create an environment where money is flowing around and can be distributed to contributors based on people enjoying their content.
Under this model, a subscriber pays money to Medium which sits in a pot. When the subscriber enjoys the content they’re reading they can click to give applause. At the end of the month Medium allocates the money in that pot to different content creators based upon the subscriber’s engagement with posts that month.
Which means that if you read someone regularly, part of your subscription fee will go to that person. If you read someone regularly and leave applause on their articles, a larger portion of your monthly subscription will go to that person.
Medium uses its ability to track your engagement to dole out money accordingly.
Simply having clicks on an article isn’t enough. People need to spend time on articles and show their appreciation for the content. The aim here is to create an environment which encourages quality and allows for creators to get paid at the end of it.
Texture is creating a Netflix for magazines
One of the fundamental worries with the assumption that subscriptions could do well across the industry is that the public are not willing to support enough separate media outlets financially.
Texture provides a solution to this.
Formed in partnership with some of the biggest players in publishing, Texture gives access to a huge array of different popular and specialist magazines. It’s an all-access pass to digital content from publications like:
- The Atlantic
- Vanity Fair
- Rolling Stone
And specialist publications are included too, like:
- Architectural Digest
- Modern Farmer
- Sailing World
- Wine Enthusiast
You can see a full list of titles here.
This Netflix approach to a subscription model could be the kind of change to the industry which can promote quality journalism and provide steady revenue streams to companies which need it. Only time will tell.
At the time of writing, Texture is available in the US and Canada, with a standard fee of $14.99 a month, with 14 days free and the first 3 months for $10.
A social phenomena requires a social solution
The best thing we can do is support strong sources of journalism and encourage key stakeholders to continue to improve their algorithms, reporting fake things.
No one actor will fix the prevalence of poor reporting or poor journalism, but a culmination of different broad changes could sweep in an improved media environment.
If you have a publication you really enjoy and know is doing great work then consider helping support them. It’s good for you and it’s good for the rest of us too.
Fake news is not fake news; it’s very real. But it doesn’t have to be this way…
How do you feel about the prevalence of fake news? Can strong journalism overcome it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!