Fake News Versus False News: Why They're Different, And Why It Matters

Breitbart fights back.

Credit: Screen shot by WGBH News

Fake News Versus False News: Why They're Different, And Why It Matters

November 21, 2016

On Friday, my students and I were talking about fake news on Facebook and what to do about it. Our focus was on for-profit content farms like the ones run by those teenagers in Macedonia, who made money by promoting such fictions as Pope Francis’s endorsement of Donald Trump (he also endorsed Hillary Clinton, don’t you know) and Clinton’s pending indictment over those damn emails.

Facebook and Google had already announced they would ban such fake news sources from their advertising programs, starving them of the revenue that is their sole motivation. And we agreed that there were other steps Facebook could take as well—tweaking the algorithm to make it less likely that such crap would appear in your newsfeed, or labeling fake sources for what they are.

But then one of my students asked: What should Facebook do about Breitbart? And here is the dilemma in dealing with fake news: not all fake news is created equal. Some of it is produced in sweatshops by people who couldn’t care less about what they’re doing as long as they can get clicks and make money. And some of it is produced by ideologically motivated activists who are engaging in constitutionally protected political speech. Facebook is not the government, so it can do what it likes. But it is our leading online source for news and community, and thus its executives should tread very lightly when stepping into anything that looks like censorship.

Make no mistake: Breitbart, whose white nationalist executive chair, Stephen Bannon, has been named President-elect Trump’s top counselor, is a cesspool of fakery. There are many examples I could point to, but here’s one: a story headlined “Donald Trump Won 7.5 Million Popular Vote Landslide in Heartland.” As Philip Bump of the Washington Post points out, the article is accurate in some hypertechnical sense; but it is clearly designed to make you think Trump won the popular vote on Election Day, which he most assuredly did not.

And what do you do about Alex Jones’s Infowars, which promulgates rancid conspiracy theories about everything from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to the country of President Obama’s birth? For that matter, what do we do about Trump’s Twitter feed, a constant source of misinformation?

The solution, I think, is to draw a distinction between fake news and false news. I’d define fake news as content produced by sites whose sole purpose is to game Facebook’s (and Google’s) algorithms for profit, and is thus a worthy target of eradication efforts. False news, by contrast, is political speech, and the way we deal with falsehoods in this country is to fight it out in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s marketplace of ideas, trusting that the truth will ultimately win out.

Cracking down on fake news as I’ve defined it is something that might be supported by virtually everyone. But cracking down on false news is only going to lead to the relitigation of ancient disputes over media bias, with the far-right sources of such falsehoods claiming—falsely, of course—that they are no less trustworthy than the mainstream media. The danger in labeling all false news as “fake,” writes John Herrman in the New York Times, is that it “misunderstands a new media world in which every story, and source, is at risk of being discredited, not by argument but by sheer force.... ‘Fake news’ as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold.”

Indeed, the pushback has begun already. Melissa Zimdars, a Merrimack College communication and media professor, has started a list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” She came under attack from the right immediately, and last week removed her list from Google Docs in the face of harassment. But I saw it when it was still online, and in addition to fake-news click farms, she included Red State (a leading right-wing site founded by Trump critic Erick Erickson), the Blaze (Glenn Beck’s site), and, of course, Breitbart and Infowars.

As Scott Shackford writes for Reason, a libertarian website, Zimdars’s list shows that “if Facebook were to decide to start censoring the sharing of ‘fake news,’ there would be a scramble to define what ‘fake’ was in a way that could lead to censorship of other content.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has been slow to react to the spreading fake-news problem, says he gets it, but observes that the solutions will be difficult:

The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically. We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible. We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.

City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has a list of ideas that he characterizes more as “here’s how to get started” rather than “here’s how to solve the problem.” Jarvis and his collaborator, John Borthwick, lay out 15 steps, ranging from making it easier to report fake news to making sure that autocomplete features don’t fill in your search bar with hoaxes. (Yes, it happens.)

Here’s my contribution: Target the publishers rather than what they publish. It is far easier, and far less damaging to free speech, to crack down on click farms spreading deliberate falsehoods for profit than it is to decide whether a particular Breitbart article passes muster. In other words, draw a distinction between fake news and false news.

We have a chance to do something about the worst of the worst. Let’s not blow the moment by getting caught up in our endless culture wars over media bias.


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