Guest Opinion: Fake news a real problem for all of us
Elections have consequences, as President Barack Obama famously told congressional Republicans after taking office in 2009, and the decisive Electoral College triumph of Donald Trump in last week’s presidential election will have far-reaching consequences. When the Democratic Party emerges from denial about the country’s current direction — and moves on from its uproar over Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin — its responsible leaders and members will undertake some soul-searching. For now, the most notable consequences of Trump’s win are in social media.
On Monday, first Google and then Facebook announced that they would not allow fake news sites to use the tech giants’ advertising services, which provide lucrative revenue for widely-shared web traffic. This is a welcome change — but not because of the silly clamor in some places that Hillary Clinton lost to Trump as a result of the proliferation of fake news stories. No, Clinton lost for numerous nuanced reasons, including the simple fact that she was a symbol of the status quo in an election year in which so many people wanted change. Rather, the fight against fake news is welcome because the tech giants are used by hundreds of millions of people a day; the world’s largest internet companies have a responsibility to protect users from misinformation.
But this is a slippery slope. In some cases, one person’s fake news will be another person’s strong opinion. The algorithms that Facebook has used to try to filter out fake news haven’t worked well, and when Facebook used humans and algorithms to monitor posts and news feeds, it faced accusations of anti-conservative bias from two news “curators” who helped decide what topics were trending.
Deciding what is fake news and what is satire is also a challenge. The Onion’s edgy take on the news — i.e., “Pope Vows To Get Church Pedophilia Down To Acceptable Levels” — clearly falls within the standard of First Amendment-protected satire set by the 1988 Supreme Court ruling upholding Hustler magazine’s printing of a parody of a Campari liquer ad in which religious leader Jerry Falwell reminisced about his “first time.”
And what about The Daily Currant? It won attention in 2013 after getting several major media outlets to pick up its fake reports, such as a story that a New York pizzeria had refused to serve then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg a second slice of pizza to protest Bloomberg’s attempts to limit soda consumption. This led to a Politico report that noted that unlike The Onion, The Daily Currant wasn’t going for laughs. Instead, it wanted to inflame opinion. Perhaps in response, The Daily Currant now regularly features Onion-style attempts at humor mixed in with humorless fake news.
As of Tuesday, its page had no Google ads. Is this fair? Probably. But if fake news is OK when it’s funny, how subjective can you get? What algorithm — or human — can be trusted to make this distinction? If Google and Facebook adopt restrictive policies, a barrage of bias claims seems inevitable.
Thankfully, the new policies that Twitter announced Tuesday have far less of a gray area. The besieged social media company has finally responded to critics by providing tools to limit online harassment, including filters that block unwanted tweets containing specific keywords and hashtags.
This comes against a backdrop of mean-spirited and bigoted targeting of Trump critics. Few stories this campaign season were as stomach-turning as the one told by National Review writer David French about the grotesque online abuse he and his family faced after he sharply criticized Trump.
These changes shouldn’t have taken an election. But they are encouraging nonetheless.