Calling Out Fake News without Suppressing Expression. Can it be done?

Posted February 6, 2017
By John Degen

In January, perhaps reacting to some of the more interesting “alternative facts” stories emerging from the United States, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted the following:

What role can government play to support credible sources and counter the fake news phenomenon? #DigiCanCon #cdnpoli

The question flowed from an article in La Presse in which the Minister announced her intention to discuss the fake news phenomenon with Facebook, Google and other online platforms (where it is suggested fake news proliferates).

In response to the Minister’s question, many folks on Twitter expressed fears of state censorship. But there is no real suggestion of government as arbiter of the truth in the Minister’s question. Neither is she proposing a censoring mechanism for fake news stories. She is merely wondering if government can somehow help society through the factual bog that is fake news.

I think there is a role for government. A distant, neutral and decidedly apolitical role.

Fake news is not a new thing. There have always been alternative sources of information to support almost any belief or opinion, and there have always been disputes between media outlets about the truth of this or that story. I lived in the UK during the third Thatcher election (1987), and was at once fascinated and befuddled to read the headlines on the competing newspapers as I walked home each day. The Guardian and the Mirror, I recall, were decidedly left wing (pro-Labour), while most of the Fleet Street tabloids leaned right and vociferously backed the Iron Lady’s Conservatives.

Depending on what had happened in the campaign that day, I could count on seeing two very different takes on reality at the local newsstand. How could such a wide-ranging and seemingly contradictory collection of “facts” all be true? To stop my head spinning, I often picked up The Independent which, as its name suggests, refused to back any party, and so seemed to chart a path through the partisan muddle.

If we as individuals truly care about objective fact, then we must do the often tricky work of assessing the reasonableness and credibility of our source material, even when it supports our world view. But must we do this without any help whatsoever?

Online platforms have begun looking at ways they might help us with this work. Facebook now allows users to report posted news items using a simple two click process that gives them four optional “reports”:

  • It’s annoying or not interesting
  • I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook
  • It’s a fake news story
  • It’s spam

If a posted piece is reported as fake enough times, it is sent to third-party fact-checkers like Snopes.com, and if found by them to be problematic the piece is labeled as disputed. The presence of such a notification is a signal to the reader. Be wary.

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. It certainly sidesteps the idea of removing contested content, and so avoids any suggestion of censorship. But I’m not sure it is a nuanced enough process to make a difference. Since the accusation “fake news” is now being used politically by true believers of all stripes, we can safely assume every single posted news item will eventually be sent to those third-party fact-checkers, and they will quickly be overwhelmed. I don’t know how Snopes pays its fact-checkers, but do they have enough resources for the avalanche of fact-checking about to come their way? As well, how do we counter the inevitable accusations that private third-party fact checkers are themselves biased in one direction or another?

Perhaps a better solution already exists at the core of journalistic practice – it just has not evolved into a truly effective weapon against the kind of pervasive fakery we now see.

Check out the Canadian Association of Journalist’s webpage on journalistic ethics. This is a comprehensive list of statements about the profession of journalism, which lays out the ground rules for the practice. Verification of sources, commitment to accuracy and correction, confirmation before publication – the way facts should be presented by media is prescribed, agreed upon, and presented as the responsibility of everyone in media. These are the rules of news.

But who calls out the rule-breakers? Is there a truly authoritative, self-regulating body for news?

The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council (CBSC) regulates private broadcasters in Canada, and is responsible for a ratings and warnings system that lets viewers know what they’re in for. Broadcasters who cross set ethical lines are reprimanded and expected to reveal their transgression to their viewers. It is something of a formalized corrections mechanism, but it is limited in its scope. It does not, for instance, have any influence on print media.

In the UK, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was created to take the place of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which folded under intense criticism after the News International phone hacking scandal. IPSO regulates the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, and operates an extremely robust program of regulatory activity around accuracy and fairness, and has the power to levy fines as high as £1 million. IPSO is funded entirely by something called the Regulatory Funding Company, which gathers revenue from the print media industry itself, so in that way it is entirely independent and self-regulating.

Canada would certainly benefit from a similar central entity regulating all media. And while I love the idea of an industry paying to have regulations imposed upon itself, the relatively small media market here suggests an arms-length funding arrangement with government might be required. Arms-length agreements protected from political interference are at the heart of Canada’s public arts funding tradition, and have served the country well. Any such funding should be contingent only on the regulator’s balanced, non-partisan, apolitical structure. So, if the government really wants to help with the fake news problem, they can put up the money and stand back – wayyyy back – as an independent body made up of industry professionals takes on the fakers.

There remains one final problem in this design. Regulatory bodies, no matter how active, have a hard time making their work known to the consuming public. Newspaper and broadcasting corrections are notoriously obscured by strategic placement, and a general rating system for accuracy simply does not exist (as far as I can tell). What does it matter if a media outlet is known to regulators as a purveyor of fake news if the public never learns that fact?

In this age of complete online media saturation, some sort of accuracy audit report would go a long way to better informing consumers of the news. Online platforms could then cooperate in a consciousness-raising exercise by linking posted content to the authoritative audit of its source. That way nothing is censored, but everyone gets the information they need to make better informed media consumption decisions, and news outlets are incentivized to stick to the facts. The actual facts, not the alternative ones.