(Photo by Julia Airey)
“We work to rethink the news.”
That’s how moderator Sean Mussenden opened Wednesday night’s panel discussion on fighting fake news.
Mussenden, a data journalist and lecturer at UMD, moderated the two hour discussion organized by the D.C. chapter of the Hacks/Hackers meetup. Held near the White House, the event attracted about 25 people – presumably with help from their pizza offerings.
— Airey (@howisthatlegal) October 18, 2017
Three panelists each shared insights from their experiences combatting fake news. Afterwards, the floor opened for audience questions. Everything from basic definitions to the value of cross-industry collaboration was discussed. Tensions between tech and journalism industries were clear, but so was a passion for gaining back reader’s trust and promoting the truth.
Here are five takeaways from the evening’s discussions:
By the time fake news makes it to your feed, it’s too late.
Panelist Melissa Ryan created the weekly newsletter Control Alt Right Delete, which tracks how the alt-right runs digital disinformation campaigns.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have about fake news, still, is that it just shows up on your newsfeed one day,” Ryan said to the audience. She gave an overview of how organized the production of fake news is, from 4chan groups and certain subreddits, to targeted attacks on Twitter. These mobilizations create whole “alternative narratives,” Ryan said, which are difficult to convince people could be fake.
“By the time [fake news] reaches your uncle’s Facebook feed, it’s too late. By the time it’s disseminated, there’s nothing you can do.”
What ‘Fake News’ means isn’t clear.
During Q&As, audience member Anthony Cammarata questioned what the term “fake news” means, given its many uses.
Panelist Philip Bump, a Washington Post journalist and former Adobe designer, replied that real media is often called “fake news” which leads to confusion. “Consumers are unable to distinguish between the real thing and the fake thing,” he said.
In answering Cammarata’s follow-up question on how bad fake news really was, Bump warned it can be used as a tool to discredit real media.
“Fake news is an umbrella” for disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, Ryan said. Ushering all three under the same umbrella creates a problem because, she says, disinformation and misinformation are being weaponized. “And that’s so much more of an issue than us falling for fake news sometimes.”
Collaborative journalism is the way to go – or is it?
One of the more contentious topics was the idea of forming more cross-industry partnerships to combat the spread of fake news. Audience member Anika Gupta, who is a freelance tech product consultant for media companies, wanted to know why there aren’t more collaborations between techies and journalists.
Panelist Josh Strupp joked that, “First of all I think anything’s worth a shot at this point,” but was serious when adding he thought collaboration is “pretty critical.”
Ryan agreed, pointing out that, “The other side is definitely working collaboratively to spread misinformation.”
Bump challenged the point that journalists don’t use collaboration often enough. “Professional journalists do that kind of collaboration by reaching out to experts all the time,” he said, adding that kind of collaboration came with journalism’s built-in “accountability system” that punishes mistakes with docked pay or firing.
People trust people more than institutions
Another question that sparked disagreements was from Neil Chaudhuri, founder of tech training and consult company Vidya. Chaudhuri proposed one way to combat bad information was to code message boards to “lend weight to what’s right.”
“That’s why there’s a fourth branch,” Panelist Josh Strupp said, highlighting that journalists already have a process for verifying and sharing important information.
Audience member George Levines, Assistant Managing Editor for Production at CQ Roll Call then questioned a part of the journalistic process, namely, that of fact-checking. He referenced recent research that said all of the media’s fact-checking may be doing a disservice.
Bump disagreed, and Ryan pointed out that the way fact-checking is done matters. “Faith in institutions is low, faith in people is at an all-time high.” She said people are more likely to believe a story when it is shared by someone they know.
“We’re just Yelping everything,” she joked, adding, “It’s not just about fact checking, it’s about meeting people where they are at.”
People struggle to identify fake news – but they can improve.
Josh Strupp is a Marketing Coordinator at ISL and product manager of Fake News!: The Game. On Wednesday night, he had some good news to share.
Strupp presented the game his company developed earlier this year that asks players to identify which headlines shown are fake news or real news, and displays the end results. Over the five to seven thousand games played, Strupp said he’s learned two big insights about the way people interact with fake news.
The first insight is that initial players get half the headlines wrong. “You basically have a one in two chance of misidentifying a fake news headline,” said Strupp.
The good news? Gamer insight number two: you get better.
“Your score improves dramatically as you play,” said Strupp, who cited a 200 percent increase for players over time. Hopefully, this translates into readers improving their media literacy in general.
For more info, see the link below to a copy of slides panelists used to introduce their work:
— Sean Mussenden (@smussenden) October 18, 2017
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