Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action

Fake news is frustrating. Nothing new there. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

Students in my freshman writing class often want to write their first college research paper on the topic of unrealistic images of women in advertising. Their first thesis is often something like “Advertisers should not damage women’s self-esteem by promoting such unhealthy body images.” When I ask them who should make advertisers change their ways, they usually say “the government,” I point out that doing so would require a change to constitutional law, which protects the advertisers’ right to print whatever they want. Getting people to agree that X is bad is not the same thing as getting people to agree that “Giving up good thing Y is the only way to avoid the damage caused by bad thing X.”

In a similar way, it’s easy to get people to agree that “fake news” is bad,

I’m not talking about satire; there’s a long tradition of using caricature, irony, absurdity and humor to make serious points. (The Onion and the fake news segments on SNL can be incredibly insightful.)

Just a few days ago, cartoonist Berkley Breathed posted what appeared to be a cease and desist letter from Trump’s lawyers, threatening legal action for unsanctioned use of Trump’s image in “Bloom County” merchandise. Though I noted that the letter seemed very unusual because it included a bowdlerized obscenity allegedly spoken by the client, it really didn’t seem any more outlandish than what I had already come to expect from the Trump empire. The next day when I noted that Breathed posted a follow-up in which he offered a personal apology, as statement of compliance (and a few more digs), I confess I was a little disappointed. I would rather Breathed have held his ground. It was only in the commentary surrounding this second event that I noticed people were calling it a hoax. I’m proud of myself for not having shared the hoax; I thought about it, but when I noticed it, it appeared to be breaking, and I didn’t see any legitimate news outlets covering the story. So I just moved on to the next thing in my social media stream, but if I hadn’t kept following the story I would simply have filed away the false datum that Trump’s lawyers threatened to sue an irreverent satirist whose work I admire.

I know that feeling of recognition and tribal alliance that comes when I spot something that so perfectly expresses your feelings about an issue. “I’m not sure if this is true, but it sure sounds like it could be true.”

In the case of Trump vs Berkley Breathed, the joke was on me. But there are people out there, passionately passing along incomplete and skewed bits of narrative on much more serious topics.

But if you pass a law against fake news, all that happens is you’ve just criminalized what the government considers to be fake news.

I just printed out a 1925 Harper’s Magazine article on, “Fake News and the Public: How the Press Combats Rumor, The Market Rigger, and The Propagandist.”  Haven’t read it yet, but here’s the think-tank paper that led me to it. (I actually bought a subscription to Harper’s just so I could get access to this article — I had to make sure I wasn’t reading fake scholarship.)

There are some possible pathways for reducing fake news, including:

  1. offering feedback to users that particular news may be fake (which seems to depress overall sharing from those individuals);
  2. providing ideologically compatible sources that confirm that particular news is fake;
  3. detecting information that is being promoted by bots and “cyborg” accounts and tuning algorithms to not respond to those manipulations; and
  4. because a few sources may be the origin of most fake news, identifying those sources and reducing promotion (by the platforms) of information from those sources.

As a research community, we identified three courses of action that can be taken in the immediate future:

  • involving more conservatives in the discussion of misinformation in politics,
  • collaborating more closely with journalists in order to make the truth “louder,” and
  • developing multidisciplinary community-wide shared resources for conducting academic research on the presence and dissemination of misinformation on social media platforms. —Shorenstein Center