I have recently been working on a commentary challenging social media powerhouses to take a firm stance against fake news. As much as I don’t like clichés, I am rather drawn to this blunt characterization of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation spread through traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. My main argument in the opinion editorial is that the biggest threat to our democracy is not foreign election meddling or apathetic attitudes, but fake news stories that destroy confidence in our government and our values. To amplify the significance of fake news, I quote, Michael Radutzky, a producer of CBS 60 Minutes, who said his show considers fake news to be “stories that are provably false, have enormous traction in the culture, and are consumed by millions of people”.
Silicon Valley giants were very much complicit in the proliferation of fake news. Now, they ought to take proactive steps to combat conspiracy driven stories that are disseminated via social media by often anonymous sources or self-proclaimed bloggers or citizen journalists. Many of these self-proclaimed citizen reporters are not well qualified to write, and do not rely on legitimate sources. Rather, they are driven my emotions and a need to express their self-importance virtually at any cost. If bloggers and other posters of stories on social media are forced to be vetted, registered in certain ways that would disclose who they are and where they get their facts, then social media users would be better equipped to determine the credibility of the stories they are reading. Commerce juggernauts like ebay rank their sellers to empower buyers and others part of the ebay community to determine if they want to conduct business with suspicious or new sellers. Similar precautions should be considered by social media companies when confronted with suspect news stories or commentaries predicated on unsubstantiated or non-public allegations of fact.
It’s in these companies’ best interests to combat fake stories. Several members of Congress have already talked about imposing onerous regulations on social media giants — or even breaking them up. Social media firms can head off this threat by solving the problem themselves and proving to Congress and to the American people that corporate Internet giants can empower their subscribers with tools that enable them to spot phony stories and unsubstantiated malicious rumors. To their credit, social media companies have taken some efforts to stop fake news. But, they need to do more.
In particular, they need to invest more into technology such as artificial intelligence — that can detect fake news before it spreads. They also need to hire thousands more human fact-checkers to nip fake stories in the bud, while ensuring that legitimate, albeit partisan, news isn’t censored. Social media platforms should also work together to identify best practices and roll out systems for combatting fake news without barring news that they don’t like or imposing more stringent political correctness onto their users. One such principle ought to be holding sources of purported newsworthy information accountable. Managing anonymity of social media influencers is a good starting point.
What we do not want is more censorship of content based on internal social values and political correctness guidelines of social media companies under the guise of combatting fake news. Fake news undermines our civic discourse and pits Americans against each other. Social media giants are the culprit and need to establish objective tools that would empower their users to determine which stories and writers are credible. If the fake news epidemic continues to escalate, legitimate newsworthy reporting will be discredited by imputation. This will lead to a blogger-driven hyped up commentary media hegemony. Online Jerry Springer Shows will coopt legitimate news sources, which will be driven to compromise their standards to stay in business.