Narrative: Fake News is Real

Written: January 24, 2017

The title of this narrative is somewhat tongue in cheek, but if there’s anything we learned from the 2016 US presidential election, it’s that fake news is a real phenomenon, and it can have real and far-reaching effects. It could be seen as primarily a media phenomenon rather than a tech one, but of course there are multiple tech angles, from Facebook and Twitter as conduits for fake news to online advertising as the business model that’s supported much of it.

Fake news isn’t, of course, strictly new – whether you go back to the Yellow Journalism era or even the US Revolutionary War or all the way back to the 1400s, it’s been around for a very long time in one form or another. The difference today is that the existence of fake news is paired with and enabled by an increasing set of filter bubbles, which make it possible for people to live in an alternative reality devoid of facts, previously only available to those whose news diet consisted entirely of supermarket tabloids.

Naturally, no-one at Facebook or Twitter wants to enable this trend, and indeed both Facebook and Snapchat have recently taken steps to remedy it somewhat, but in their pursuit of maximum engagement these services have sometimes allowed click bait and fake news to thrive unchecked because users respond to it positively and it drives engagement and therefore ad dollars.

The big question at this point is what more tech companies can do to prevent the spread of fake news – Facebook’s strategy is very sensible, but is already running into opposition from some alt-right groups who see it as further bias against conservative news media. Outside of social networks, of course, most tech companies have relatively little sway one way or the other here. In most cases, these companies will simply have to watch others – notably the news media – do their best to counter this alarming but at the same time old and familiar problem.

See also the Facebook’s Power narrative, which is in some ways closely related to this one.