The New Yorker wrote a rather compelling piece on the concept of “fake news” back in late November 2016 (incidentally, where we stole this graphic — perhaps the best illustration of the phenomenon as we’ve seen, for reasons we will explain shortly).
In it, Nicholas Lehmann describes the rise of fake news, or rather its return from antiquity. Plato had little use for democracy and the democratizing effects of news. The Founding Fathers limited the franchise (vote) to an educated and well-propertied handful of men.
By the advent of radio, the United States faced a choice: provide a single outlet of government controlled and government subsidized news, or allow the market to determine the outcomes. Lehmann explains:
In the nineteen-twenties, when radio was as new and vastly influential as the Internet is today, the United States decided not to create a government-funded news network like the British Broadcasting Corporation, but instead to turn broadcasting over to private industry and to regulate it heavily. The American news world that many people are nostalgic for had only three networks, which were required to speak in a nonpartisan voice and to do money-losing public-service journalism in return for the renewal of their valuable government licenses. That world disappeared when Ronald Reagan deregulated broadcasting, in the nineteen-eighties. When cable television and the Internet came along, they were structured on the more libertarian idea that everybody should have a voice and everybody should have free access to all forms of information, including misinformation. It shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of people, both creators and consumers of journalism, prefer fake news to real news.
Thus advertising drove the fourth estate.
I strongly recommend reading The New Yorker piece in its entirety, as it captures the real issues revolving around the nature of information in the digital age.
Lehrmann suggests an idea of a standard for news… yet this did not help Britain with regards to Brexit or the 2014 Scottish referendum. Lehrmann suggests expanding the ecosystem of information-based journalism… yet one might argue that “infotainment” has effectively widened that sphere to its maximum extent, nevermind that the canvass we are writing on — the American-educated voter — isn’t exactly geared towards considering policy as a whole.
Lehrmann does remark on how the late Walter Lippmann in his book “Public Opinion” predicts the rise of the think tank — resources where politicians and opinion leaders can simply cut through the haze and cut to the chase.
Hardly democratizing, but perhaps a key to the future where “news” becomes curation, and subscriptions to such meta-curation become the only means of really understanding what is going on at any given time on the ground. Perhaps big data can attempt to aggregate the masses, but that only tells you what people believe, not what is actually happening.
This morning’s Virginia News (courtesy of the Virginia Public Access Project) builds in a further problem.
If you want to know what the news of the day is, one literally turns to one of Lippmann’s political observatories. Yet rather than access, we see abstracts… of the 70 articles distilled by VPAP, 61 are locked behind paywalls — most of which have 10 free articles at the first of the month, but are rather limited towards the end of the month.
So if you really want to know what’s going on, where does the citizen turn for free news that doesn’t have the thumbprint of a biased media?
Facebook. Or more accurately, people they trust by way of social media. From a rather intriguing reveal via The Next Web:
50 percent of participants said they trusted the story’s facts if it was shared by someone they trusted, while only 34 percent said so if the story was shared by anyone else. Across the board, the people surveyed were more likely to trust the story, find it entertaining, and believe it to be well-reported if it was shared by a trusted person.
Also, about half of the participants could remember who shared the article when asked later, while only two in 10 could identify the source.
…or more to the point, the heart of the exchange between Sean Hannity and Ted Koppell this weekend:
In an era where social media has eroded the prominence and potency of the mainstream media, the turtling of information has created a vacuum in the public square — a vacuum that is being filled by curators and purveyors of “fake news”.
In Virginia? VPAP could very well distill the news into “Virginia’s Best Paper Route” (TM) — but when it comes to what all the gobbledygook means among Virginia opinion leaders and political activists?
They come to The Jeffersoniad, Bearing Drift, The Bull Elephant, and Blue Virginia.
More accurately, they come to opinion leaders within the Republican and Democratic spheres of influence — progressive, liberal, conservative, and nationalist — and what they share on social media.
Your news is given to you like this:
Paywalls are killing civic discourse and enabling fake news.
So how to get around this? Not sure… no newspaper or MSM outlet can survive giving away their product for free. One could just as easily sponsor an MSM outlet, but having the cross-section of news sources is absolutely critical in order to break through the “daily me” addressed by Cass Sunstein almost 20 years ago.
Back to Lippmann and political observatories. Even then, if one isn’t willing to pay $10/mo to the MSM to do curation, why would one pay $10/mo for STRATFOR or VPAP (or Virginia Line Media) to do curation when fake news is… well… free?
Interestingly enough, with all the hubbub about fake news actually being subsidized, one might stop and wonder. If the problem is intractable and embedded in the nature of a free press and free expression, is the solution really to reinforce the bubbles of self? Or is the solution to develop better curators at the consumptive level?
Either way, paywalls seem to be making the problem far worse in the short term, something that — at least when it comes to op-eds and important articles — the MSM may want to reconsider mimicking clickbait driven models and start focusing on quality of readership rather than quantity and CTRs.
This feeds into another excellent essay in the pages of The New Yorker, from Alex Ross opining on the fate of the critic in an era of clickbait from a March 2017 column:
Why publish articles that almost nobody wants? On closer examination, some shaky assumptions underlie these hard-nosed generalizations. First, digital data, in the form of counting clicks and hits, give an incomplete picture of reading habits. Those who subscribe to the print edition are discounted—and they tend to be older people, who are also more likely to follow the performing arts. A colleague wrote to me, “The four thousand people reading your theatre critics might be extremely loyal subscribers who press the paper on others. People in power often speak of ‘engagement’ and ‘valued readers,’ yet they still remain in thrall of the big click numbers—because of advertising, mostly.”
. . .
The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.
Yet if advertising isn’t delivering on its promises, perhaps there’s another model to follow? Not to suggest that STRATFOR and the think tank approach to news is the path forward, but there’s a reason why — at some level — local weeklies are thriving and major publications are failing for want of a major sponsor (i.e. WaPo and Amazon).
Those local weeklies are — by and by — local curators. MSM outlets are competitors; there’s no branding to being a reader of a state paper that regurgitates whatever is printed by state or national wires.
Worse still to put all of that regurgitation behind a glass paywall. Why bother with what’s being sold there when the dealer across the street has something for us, and the first hit is free?