Leaders of the most important tech companies in the world are grappling with fake news, as embarrassing screenshots of bogus Trending Topics and Google News headlines go viral. The presidential campaign turned a spotlight on this viral disinformation, but it has been growing for a while in a crack in the media sidewalk. Over the last few months, it overran its surroundings: In fact, fake news drew more engagement on Facebook than real news as the election drew to a close.
In particular, fake news—that is, hoaxes and false and misleading stories from hyper-partisan and other sites—took advantage of the widening gap between the booming platforms and legacy media companies. The tech companies now inform more Americans than any other news outlet. BuzzFeed News is among the very few professional news outlets fully native to that ecosystem. Most media companies are still spending the vast bulk of their reporting resources on print, broadcast, or paywalled digital distribution that isn’t made for those spaces. Filling that gap is now a central challenge for media and tech companies: How can media companies do professional journalism that reaches audiences on the major platforms? And how can the giant platforms make that professional journalism worth their while?
This gap played out through the coverage of the 2016 election. Conventional political reporting did a pretty good job revealing facts about Donald Trump: Reporters from The New York Times and the Washington Post to BuzzFeed News and Politico and elsewhere challenged and tested the candidate and revealed much that he had tried to conceal—tax returns, views on Iraq, sexist comments, and unlikely policy claims.
This was a heated, competitive chase. Our political and investigative reporters celebrated when we got a scoop, and we kicked ourselves when great competitors beat us to these stories.
At the same time, another team of our reporters was at work in a cavernous space full of strange new figures, and very few professional journalists. This echoey new world—think of the Upside Down in Stranger Things—is the wide open digital news space, where linear television only exists when a clip goes viral, paywalled legacy media sites are largely absent, and a relative handful of outlets—fewer after a year that saw Gawker collapse, Gigaom vanish, Mashable step back, and much of the new investment go into video aggregation—engage in hand-to-hand combat over basic questions of truth and falsehood.
Here in the gap between the speed of the tech transformation and the recalcitrance of changing media there are gleeful trolls spreading manic, entertaining garbage. There are deep conspiracy theorists who believe in false flags and (((hidden hands))). And there are, perhaps most hallucinatory, Macedonian teenagers for whom feeding Trump supporters what they want to hear on sites like WorldPoliticus.com and TrumpVision365.com was a good way to make a few bucks.
Fake news is a cousin of heavily torqued, partisan news that people share to harden the shell of their filter bubbles, the strengths of the platforms forming a loop with the human weakness toward confirming our own biases.
Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote that “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.” Maybe for algorithms and epistemologists. But it’s something that professional journalists are asked to do every day, and it’s not actually that complicated. The everyday reporting truths—who said what, when did they say it, what does the document say, where did the money go—are the sorts of thing we’re good at pinning down. Victims’ parents will confirm for you the reality of the Sandy Hook shooting. The Justice Department spokesman can tell you that Hillary wasn’t indicted. The Vatican website has no endorsement from the pope.
But even as great reporters, including our political team, competed for the central, traditional campaign stories, we found ourselves strangely alone in the digital trenches. The big story of 2014 was Gamergate, the misogynistic movement championed by Breitbart and covered primarily by new media. That turned out to be a better predictor of the presidential election than any rubber chicken dinner in Iowa (or poll by a once-reputable pollster). Joe Bernstein dug into an energized white nationalist movement that owed at least as much to 4Chan as to David Duke, and Bernstein’s definitive 2015 piece on the “Chanterculture” prefigured much of what would happen in 2016. Charlie Warzel’s coverage of Twitter harassment documented organized waves of trolling, and included the first attempt to nail down the platform’s anemic response. Craig Silverman defined what has been the great post-election media story, the epidemic of fake news on Facebook. Other new voices—from the Intercept to the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—reported and argued in and around this news space. All of it combined chewed up fewer resources than what the traditional media spent on a day of campaign travel.
I don’t mean to suggest that more professional, digitally native journalism is the sole solution. Fake news is a cousin of heavily torqued, partisan news that people share to harden the shell of their filter bubbles, the strengths of the platforms forming a loop with the human weakness toward confirming our own biases. These are deep problems that we will all continue to wrestle with, with no easy solutions. Journalism isn’t going to stop a global wave of Facebook-driven radicalization.
Nor do I mean to be glib or snobbish about legacy media. There were great examples of traditional reporting on the digital sphere—notably, John Herrman’s essay in the Times on the new politics of Facebook and The Wall Street Journal’s display of the parallel worlds of conservative and liberal Facebook feeds. But those are exceptions, and for obvious reasons. This simply isn’t the legacy media’s beat. Its older audience doesn’t live here. The entertaining, engaging, viral debunkings that are the most effective response to viral lies aren’t its style, especially when reporting on the churning digital information ecoystem requires paragraphs explaining to readers what Snapchat is.
But more reporting—and economics that support reporting in, on, and for audiences on the big platforms—is part of the answer. We think we and a handful of other new, native digital outlets are doing a pretty good job out here, and we’d like prizes and back pats. But we also recognize that reporting now is a communal effort, in which competing reporters check and push one another, scoops beget scoops, and platforms react fast to focused scrutiny.
I’m glad that the 2016 election has prompted people to buy new subscriptions to paywalled legacy publications. But that, by definition, is a way to stay out of the trenches, to keep clean hands in the new media wars. Instead, legacy outlets and new ones alike could let important coverage that is native to this new space out from behind paywalls. Editors could treat the information ecosystem as a frontline beat. And the platforms need to find a way to support the native journalism that is the only antidote to the poison in their veins.