The Fake News Problem

“How do we know that something happened? That what we’re seeing is real?”
—  David Grossman, BBC Newsnight

Fake news is the latest phrase in America’s lexicon that is used to discredit the media and add to the already abundant lack of trust in it. It is arguably one of the most popular terms that emerged out of the recent Presidential Election, with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo calling it the “equivalent of the N-word for journalists.” (He later issued an apology for the comparison.)

There are two different, but equally important, types of fake news.

The first one is more like “faux” news, which is made deliberately to look like news that comes from established news outlets like ABC News or The New York Times. The perpetrators create outlandish articles, usually completely made-up, with the purpose of amassing viewership, spreading false information and, more importantly, profit from the traffic. These types of articles tend to pop-up on Facebook feeds, and because people don’t take the time to examine them critically, they are shared and re-shared until the general belief becomes that the fake story is a real one. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fight fake news, but said that he wanted to make sure attempts to harness fake news did not limit freedom of expression.

The second type of fake news emerged from the first type, when President Donald Trump accused longstanding news institutions, such as CNN and Times Magazine, of creating fake news. President Trump’s press secretary called it “deliberately false reporting,” and the accusations are not without merit. On the evening of President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2016, Time Magazine White House correspondent Zeke Miller reported that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not in the Oval Office, and therefore must have been removed by the new administration. It turned out that the bust was simply obscured by a door, and was in fact still present in the Oval Office. Miller quickly issued an apology and retracted the report, but the damage was already done, and in this instant world, it was shared countless times all over the internet.

There are ways that both types of fake news can be fought. With stronger filters and more caution from the reader, the fake news stories that appear on Facebook can be stopped. If news organizations give reporters more time to check their sources, and reduce the pressure to instantaneously report and update social media accounts, the second type of fake news stories can also be avoided. However, with the rapid growth of technology, a third category of fake news looms ahead, and it is the most dangerous.

Emily Bell from the Columbia Journalism School says that the next thing in fake news will be the ability to recreate people, “manipulate their voices,” and “manipulate their facial expressions,” using digital technology. Additionally, computer software giant Adobe Systems is releasing a new software program called VoCo, which can make anyone say anything by simply typing it in.

Before these technological advances catch up, the media needs to not only deal with the challenges we face today in regards to fake news, but also prepare to fight the issues that will arise tomorrow. If not, the lines between reality and illusion will be blurred, and then how will we know that something really happened, and that what we’re seeing is real?

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