Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Fake news a symptom of sickness in media ecosystem

Our information ecosystem is sick. We have more info than ever yet we never been more confused politically.

We are living on the edge of — if not already in — an information crisis. And it seems as if we are too addled by all the fake news, misinformation, disinformation, bad reporting and flat-out propaganda at places like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Google to even know how far gone we are.

Fake news, which gained serious traction during the presidential campaign, is only part of the problem. But it's a big part, and the confusion it can spread was on sorry display in recent months — particularly on social media where more than 62 percent of Americans now go for news and information, according to the Pew Research Center.

Did you know that President-elect Donald Trump not only won the most electoral votes, he also beat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote?

How about Vice President-elect Mike Pence saying in an interview with Fox News that gay conversion therapy saved his marriage?

And what about Pope Francis endorsing Trump? Who would have thought?

And why in the world would a New York Times columnist like David Brooks be calling for Trump's assassination?

Just to be clear: None of those stories is true. But they all found their way onto social media where millions not only were exposed to them, but also participated in their toxic spread by clicking and sending them on in this fabulous new form of communication that was supposed to make us into one great, enlightened, global community.

A BuzzFeed analysis published Wednesday found that fake news was more popular than real news on Facebook down the homestretch of the election. During the last three months of the campaign, the most popular fake election stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from such legitimate news websites as those of The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and others.

There was also a bias in the range of stories, according to the analysis.

"Of the 20 top-performing false election stories … all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton," Craig Silverman, founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, wrote. "Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump."

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg initially called the charge that fake news on his platform affected the election "a pretty crazy idea."

And even in the face of mounting criticism and reports of a group of Facebook employees questioning the role fake news on the site played in the election, he has mainly stuck to his guns.

"Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic," he wrote on his page last weekend. "Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other."

On Monday, Facebook did update the language of its policy statement to stress that it will not share revenue with sites that traffic in fake news, but that's not much more than window dressing at this point. The site already had a similar policy in place.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager for ad targeting at Facebook, called Zuckerberg's response hypocritical.

"Here's the real hypocrisy of it," he told show host Chris Hayes on MSNBC Tuesday night. "Facebook has hundreds of sales people with a huge office in Washington, D.C. And they literally go and tell political advertisers, 'Look, Facebook is the most influential platform in the world. We will win you an election." And then, Zuck turns around and says, 'No, there's no possibly way that Facebook can influence the election.' It's really disingenuous of him to sort of claim this and I think on the face of it, really false."

Zuckerberg has consistently shown a lack of interest in the crucial public service role media play in a democracy. And now he is running a media platform that more people engage with for political news than they do The New York Times or NBC.

That is a chilling thought. It should also be a wake-up call that we reached a tipping point during this election in the declining influence of legacy era gatekeepers vs. the ever-expanding power of click-driving, social-media entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg.

Nor is the problem limited to Facebook.

Last Sunday, Dan Abrams reported on Mediaite that when he Google-searched "Final Vote Count 2016," the top result was a link to a website titled 70news. The story there said that Trump not only won the electoral college vote, he also beat Clinton in the popular vote.

"The goal of search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users," Andrea Faville, a spokeswoman for Google, said in a statement Monday. "In this case, we clearly didn't get it right, but we are always working to improve our algorithms."

There it is: The almighty algorithm, the secret sauce that can't possibly be shared, once again being used to silence critics.

"For years, companies like Google and Facebook have hidden behind the argument of, 'We just use math. We don't have the position of the editorship function. We don't decide what we show you. It's just math. We optimize for engagement. We show you stuff that we know you're going to comment and like on, and that's it,'" Martinez said. "And I think when the stakes become American democracy, that excuse just isn't good enough."

For all the sins of the culture that controlled legacy media before the Internet blew it up, gatekeepers in that world were acculturated to a sense of social responsibility, verification of information and fairness of presentation. Those values have been largely lost even by some of the biggest legacy operations as we moved deeper into the digital frontier.

Why don't media critics and Facebook users demand the same standards of accuracy they do for The New York Times or Washington Post — especially now that we know how crucial a role social media play in the conversation of democracy? And why doesn't an entrepreneur like Zuckerberg take some of the money his wildly successful platform makes and hire journalists who embody the highest standards of the profession to be part of the management team making editorial decisions?

As dangerous as it is to get the government involved in such media matters, a few high-level hearings on the role Facebook and other sites played in this year's election wouldn't hurt — especially with some angry Democrats asking questions.

As often as I've complained about President Barack Obama playing media critic, I was happy to hear him slam fake news and social media during a press conference Thursday in Berlin.

The good news: Fake news and the role it plays in the nation's political life will be getting more serious scrutiny in coming months.

"I don't want to say it came out of nowhere, but the fake news meme or phenomenon was not an issue we were thinking of so prominently even a few months ago," Aaron Smith, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, said. "It's now on the radar. … And it's not just us. There are a lot of researchers out there who are going to be trying to figure out how to map and evaluate the impact of this kind of information."

The bad news: Our media malaise runs much deeper than Facebook or even fake news. Our information ecosystem is very sick. We have more information and media technology than ever. Yet we have never been more confused politically as a nation. And we now have a president-elect with 25 million social media followers who often retweets and posts without any nod toward verification.

"I'm an old-school journalist trained by the last of the old guard," said Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the booming website Snopes.com, which exposes fake news stories. "And one of the concerns I have is that people are going to say, 'Oh, it's all Facebook's fault. Once we get Facebook to clamp down on fake news, everything's going to be good.'"

But there's a much larger issue that's not being addressed, Binkowski said. Fake news wouldn't be thriving if citizens had sources of information they could trust.

"The larger issue is that the public has lost faith in the press," she said. "And there are some good reasons for that with all that's happened to newsrooms in the wake of layoffs, downsizing and all the rest. A free press with the resources it needs is essential to a healthy democracy. You have to have reliable information. If voters don't have good information, you don't have a good democracy."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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