What Gives?

Fake News: When The Oxymoron Becomes A Business Model

Written By Chitra Subramaniam | Mumbai | Published:

Do newsrooms need ethicists, theorists and IT engineers? Is there a growing call for better domain knowledge among editors and reporters on subjects such as environment, medicine and urban planning? The economist John Kennet Galbraith once wrote that if people had to pick between changing their mind or proving there was no need to, most would be busy looking for proof. It is too early to tell if there is a natural pushback against fake news, but something is happening. 

This piece addresses how fake news reporting is an example of finding proof to prove a prejudice also called an agenda in journalese. I try to frame it in the context of media ethics including editorial and business practices and governance issues.

News is an asset to be handled with integrity. Bad reporting and even lies have been around since the dawn of reporting. Governments, civil society, corporate houses even editors, plant stories on unsuspecting reporters. Exaggerated company returns, false data including fake medical analysis is the stuff of high profile media management where the managed and the managers mingle mindlessly. Now, challenged by speed and funding priorities, fake political news is the new yellow, high on speed and often low on accuracy. Fact checks, independent research and reading are considered old school, not fast enough to keep pace with technology and click-bait revenue models. 

Why would anyone believe inaccurate information, you may ask? Human beings move in groups. Beyond reading and listening they need to belong to larger and more widely lauded versions of truth and accuracy. Ethicists, philosophers and even propagandists study this echo-chamber phenomenon. In the context of newsrooms it sits badly on legacy business models that have functioned along two main divisions – editorial and advertising. Internet with its speed and access has changed that, installing in its place a caste system of information flow as most editors continue to grapple with news even as the ground from under their feet slips. 

“For a long time, through the Internet’s first and second generations, people naturally assumed that faster must be better; slowness was a vestige of a bygone era, a technological hurdle to overcome. What they missed is that human institutions and intermediaries often impose slowness on purpose. Slowness is a social technology in its own right, one that protects humans from themselves,” writes Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic.

Editors – anyone there? 

That protective human interface should ideally have come from editors. But, as new platforms like Google and Facebook made inroads into newsrooms causing revenues to dip, their (editors’) failure to see this and come up with another business model meant either they were complicit or ignorant. Many transformed themselves into Editor and CEO dangerously blurring the firewalls between two mutually exclusive disciplines – journalism and business. Conflict of interest was rarely declared. 

Was a CEO editor a businessperson or a journalist?  If both, when did the reporter become the businessperson? The situation in India where family owned media houses are common, this reality damages journalism. Ethics is not a conversation – it is a lived and felt requirement that must be publicly endorsed by a team and adhered to daily. There are few examples that hold promise, but most don’t pass scrutiny. Technology cannot be blamed for poor journalism. Judgement, especially that of editors needs addressing as well. Few understand deontology. News, opinions, advocacy have been rolled into one hash tag masquerading as reportage including silly guidance like two minute reads, 10 minute reads, long reads etc. 

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Doles are fake news’ business cousin

Journalism is a public good. Unfortunately, most media is no longer trusted because media doesn’t trust itself, having turned itself into a victim.  For lack of a better term, I’m using the highly derogatory word “coolie” which is used for computer programmers around the world. This term is indispensable to the trade but not worthy of respect unless of course you are privileged and wear many masks. Status quo loves “coolies,” and advances in technology are anathema to them.

Technology companies that refuse to say whether they are media platforms or advertising conglomerates have destroyed news in two ways. First, by occupying the space vacated by editors and second by handing out little grants to keep the “news” pipeline healthy, but not healthy enough to be free. The “coolie” concept loves status quo. 

The demands of these mini-news rooms sitting on massive platforms is uniform – focus on community stories, make news hyper-local, do not look beyond your neighbourhood i.e. do not be more ambitious than the funders want you to be. Patronising is fake news’ business cousin. The elephant in the room is the advertising market and funding of fake busters. The past few years have seen a burgeoning of fact-checking news sites that are part of the click-bait circuit. The fake news circuit is typically 24-hours long and correct itself in some cases by wilfully propelled backlash time enough to secure the clicks. 

Understanding Internet and its methods is an acquired skill

There is no ideal world or space on Internet, but there are some key requirements of free speech. “These are privacy and security, openness, digital inclusion, web literacy and decentralisation,” said Jairus Khan ethical hacker and communications expert of the Mozilla Foundation speaking at CyFy 2019, a meeting on Technology, Innovation and Society organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) at Tangiers, Morocco.  Apparently an Internet illiterate person requires 53 skills to handle the beast and these skills are not necessarily intuitive. Pressure cooker newsrooms are fertile grounds for fake news reports including deep fakes as reporters lack domain knowledge and training.   

Experts say some eight American and Chinese companies dominate the digital world with layers of information stored back to back – a sort of carpet occupation of mind space that first targets newsrooms. Google and Facebook control 84 per cent of the advertising market, Facebook with over two billion users has 98 per cent of the revenues ($55 billion) from advertisements – the question must be asked – are they an advertising company?

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Headlines are bottom lines competing for space in unhealthy ways behind the fig leaf of fake news. In this market-driven battle, the operative word is control: states, companies, human beings – all want to control and mitigate information irrespective of its relevance.  Status quo also loves control and it can be made to roll and rile depending on the agenda. 

What is your fake quotient? 

The truth of ethics, media and investments was brought home to me when a group I am mentoring on media and technology told me their funders asked which part of their news site addressed fake news. When they said they were IT engineers wishing to strengthen good journalism with new tools and algorithms, the funders lost interest.  Empowering knowledge is a tricky business when intent and interests pull in opposite directions. Young people are learning this today. They are also learning that verifiers of fake news are part of a closed and undeclared applauding unit across political spectrums with membership only entry.  Fake news typically works in a 24-hour cycle (international timelines), self propels and is either corrected or self corrects but visibility ensures revenue. 

I am trying to imagine a newsroom whose only work is to bust fake news because revenue is tied to clicks. A hashtag is not journalism. 

Olga Stern, Co-Founder of Genews.io is a Swedish software engineer who has developed a unique programme. She helps newspapers flatten gender bias in their content. She analysed 16 newspapers and “…found that only 13 per cent of articles were about women,” she told me at Tangiers. She has now created a complete service for newspapers resulting in a national discussion on gender equality reporting and plans to take her innovation to English media soon. 

Designed to set knowledge free, Internet regulators around the world are now trying to curtail it.  Media is the first port of call. Censorship is a global concern and cut and paste attempts are ate efforts to censor are called “splinter net”, carrying rules and regulations according to government models, cultures and value systems. In the last five years at least 50 countries have tried to regulate this space. The United States (US), the European Union (EU), China and more recently India are all having a go at leading it conversations to about the return of the Nanny state with one big difference – other than a total ban, how do you regulate the internet? Each country has its own axe to grind – China, for example has restricted Facebook and other western tech giants since 2009, the EU has its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is serving as a model for other countries but here is the sting. We are not even scratching the surface of deep fakes (which have existed for decades and Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

Technology will not make human beings honest, no more than it will make journalists ethical. Fake news is an oxymoron, and a business model that bullies use to gang together while throwing a few morsels at small news organisations. These groups include senior media people as well as, all fast and furious to break stories without basic checks. 

An overhaul is in the making. There are new entrants in the media field – doctors and philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, engineers and lay people who are taking up careers in the media. They are motivated by one thing – the desire to bring back the magic of responsible reporting and storytelling. It matters.

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(The views and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)