Before we attack the problem, we must understand that the idea of “disinformation” – and that’s what we’re talking about here – is very old one. During the 1930s, New York Times reporter Walter Duranty was found to have filed completely false stories covering up the barbaric cruelties and famine committed in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
When asked by a fellow reporter about peasants in Ukraine dying of starvation at the rate of 25,000 a day, Duranty replied “What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.” (“Pulitzer-Winning Lies”, THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Jun. 12, 2003)
Relying on the prestige of The New York Times, Mr. Duranty’s denial that there was a famine was accepted as gospel. After Stalin’s atrocities came to light, in 1990 a member of The New York Times editorial board admitted that “Duranty’s articles were some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” (See “New York Times Statement About 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty”).
So, while disinformation is an old problem, electronic media (and by that, I mean a 24-hour news cycle, and news breaking through the pervasiveness and immediacy of social media) has created a “multiplier effect.” There’s an old saying that a lie spreads halfway around the world before the truth is out of bed. In our digital landscape, now a lie circles the globe several times before the truth is out of bed.
It’s Really “Fake News 2.0”
It’s also important to understand that disinformation through digital media was happening long before the phrase “fake news” came into parlance. During the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, stock market manipulators figured out that the multiplier effect of digital media could be used to swindle stock investors using “the pump and dump scheme.” The way these schemes usually worked was that the swindlers would buy a reasonably unknown stock at a low price. Then, using chat rooms and bulletin boards, hoaxers would create fake headlines that announced some market moving news that wildly increased value of their shares. Before the fake headline was discovered to be false, the swindlers sold their stock at a higher price, in some cases for tens of millions of dollars.
Because this disinformation was not of interest to the general public but only to those involved in the equities markets, the issue of fake headlines did not enter the general public’s consciousness. It’s worth noting that many of these people were caught and charged with securities fraud, which goes to the element of accountability that we’ll see is central to our thesis.
“Wrong” vs “Fake”
As many of you know, last year a jury found that Rolling Stone published a story about a campus rape that turned out to be a complete fabrication. The legal ins-and-outs of that case are too complicated to go into here, but the court heard credible allegations that reporter had been lied to, manipulated by anti-rape activists, and also led by her own bias, failed to fact-check allegations before being published (See, “Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure”, April 5, 2015). After a series of corrections, Rolling Stone retracted the article in its entirety. The Dean of Students for UVA school sued Rolling Stone for defamation, and won a $3 million award, which is not being appealed (Rolling Stone settled another suit brought by one of the named fraternities. See, “Fraternity chapter at U-Va. to settle suit against Rolling Stone for $1.65 million”, June 13, 2017) but the issue they are litigating is not the falsity of the story, but whether damages should be awarded against them.
The central thesis I submit is that neither CNN, The New York Times nor Rolling Stone are “fake news” outfits. They have simply published “wrong” or “biased” news from time to time. Unfortunately, the phrase “fake news” is now being thrown around as a slur against any news with which someone disagrees, or finds factual fault.
The key distinction between “fake news” and “wrong” or “biased” news is not a question of ideology, but rather one of accountability. Whether we take free speech as a human right, or instead approach it as the keystone that holds together the bridge of an informed democracy, we must admit that we all have a capacity for error. Reasonable readers must be taught that that the First Amendment allows us the “breathing space” to make such errors (See, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 376 U.S. 254 (1964) .
As for accountability, responsible news organizations often self-police errors by providing corrections or allowing aggrieved subjects an opportunity to respond. A few large news organizations still employ “public editors” or “standards editors” to provide internal checks and balances. Whether you believe that these people are not doing their jobs well is off point: if the public does not believe they are doing their jobs well, they will simply stop buying their publications. This is the free marketplace of ideas at work.
Finally, in the worst-case scenario of ultimate accountability, the First Amendment still allows citizens who believe they have been libeled to seek redress in court, usually subject to a very high standard of proof involving “knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.” (“Reckless disregard” is explained in greater detail in “Purposeful avoidance of the truth”: the other side of actual malice”, Charles J. Glasser, Nov. 15, 2016, INFORRM)
Nuts and Bolts of Defining and Detecting “Fake News”
This leads us to the nuts and bolts question: how do we identify “fake” news sites? I submit that it’s not a question of ideology. The alt-right Breitbart.com is not a “fake news site” nor is the far left progressive Thinkprogress.org. To be sure, each are laden with skewed editorial viewpoints loaded into what ought to be straight news reporting, but that simply is the hallmark of “bias.”
In the case of Rolling Stone, arguments can be made that the writer’s bias may have led the reporter to introduce falsity into the story. But that’s “wrong” news, not “fake” news.
Instead of looking at legitimacy through an ideological lens, by using some simple Internet tools and little bit of detective work we can use five steps to sort the wheat from the chaff and become better journalists, commentators and readers.
Using Geek Tools
- Domain Registry is the First Sign of Fakeness.
Legitimate news organizations do not hide behind private domain registrations or anonymous ownership that make it impossible to trace orcontact the publisher. All domain names are listed in an international registry called ICANN. This registry shows the details of who owns whatdomain name. Using the Internet tool called “whois” we can look up theowner of the domain name. We can see that the domain Bloomberg.com is run by Bloomberg LP, located at 731 Lexington Ave. Similarly, Thinkprogress.org (although decidedly leftist-progressive) lists an addressthat can be checked as legitimate through Google maps.
By contrast, the fake news site Bipartisanreport.com – which is often cited in social media reporting on US political news– hides behind a privateregistration company actually located in Australia that shields the true ownership of the website from public view. This is the first red flag indetecting a fake news website. This method is not colored by ideology, but rather a hunt for simple transparency.
2.Lack of Contactable or Experienced Staff
Another red flag to look out for is whether or not the news site in question has a masthead that lists the names of reporters and editors, or whether the website is populated by stories containing no byline at all. Check the“about” or “contact us” link on the website. If it simply lists the generic email address and does not name any editors or journalists, it is likely a fake news website.
3. Lack of Journalistic Legacy
Another backstop of credibility is to run a Google search on the name of theauthor(s) in question on bylined stories. We all leave digital fingerprints,and when checking on the name of the author, we should find at leastsome breadcrumb that shows either previous experience in journalism,expertise in the field about which they are writing, or some other evidencethat byline is not merely a pseudonym.
Similarly, using an Amazon-owned search tool called Alexa you can also track which websites link to the one you are examining. Fake news website operators have become very experienced in gaming search engines by creating networks of links from one fake news website to another. (Much of this is motivated by clickbait ad verticals designed to generate revenue).
Thus, it is not the number of links to the website in question that matters,but rather the type and quality of news organization that cite the website you are examining. Again, this method is nonideological: even the arguably left-leaning New York Times has cited the libertarian/conservativemagazine Reason at times.
4. Lack of Corrections, Updates and Self-Policing
Although there are cogent arguments that legacy media is doing a bad job of issuing corrections, (and in some cases making “stealth” corrections tostories not showing a change in text) to their credit, most major news organizations spend considerable resources at least making the attempt tocorrect errors or allow an opportunity to comment after publication.
In addition, seeking revenue in the transition from print to digital media,many news organizations are monetizing the immediacy of digital media byissuing updates to stories adding new information, clarifications, or additional comment. This attracts readers to revisit their news websites frequently, thus increasing revenue. In turn, it is in their interest to update stories. By contrast, fake news websites almost never publish corrections nor have a “letters to the editor” section, and rarely update news stories.
5. Does this Make Sense?
As a final check, the thoughtful reader or researcher needs to leave their own ideological bias at the door for a moment, and ask themselves whether they believe the story because they want to, or because the storyhas been proven true. While smaller, though legitimate news websites mayhave a scoop from time to time, before sharing or citing a “bombshell”revelation it is worth checking to see if the well-staffed major wire servicessuch as the Associated Press, Reuters or others have published anything remotely similar.
In conclusion, I make no pretense to offering these five steps as a panacea to curing us of the plague of “fake news.” Indeed, The President’s constant use of the label perpetuates the misunderstanding (See, “Trump: Media Should Compete for ‘FAKE NEWS TROPHY”, Nov. 27, 2017, THE HILL). In some cases, particularly in social media, civilians and journalists alike often repost articles without reading them. Yet others do not exhibit the good healthy skepticism that a reader should show when an article is so loaded with hysterical outrage or obsessive use of modifiers and editorialization that its credibility should be called into question. But that said, if we slow down just a little bit and look behind the curtain we can improve the quality and public trust of journalism and the quality of discourse in American life.
Charles J. Glasser, Jr. was a journalist from 1979 to 1992, covering spot news, combat correspondence and enterprise reporting for daily newspapers and wire services. He later studied at the New York University School of Law, worked with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan at NYU’s Brennan Center, and started his legal career at NBC News. He spent twelve years as Global Media Counsel for Bloomberg News. He is the author and editor of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook” (Fourth Ed., 2016-17, Lexis/Nexis). He has been appointed an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Center, where he teaches a graduate level class in Law and Ethics for Investigative Journalism. He also serves at the Columbia University Global Center for Free Expression as a listed expert and panelist on international media law and free speech rights.