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So You Want to Clamp Down on Fake News. Who Decides What’s Fake?

fake newsIf you have a social media account or email or an Internet connection at all, it’s safe to say that at one point in your life you’ve probably encountered a fake news story. Likewise, you’ve probably noticed a surge in the number of those stories popping up on your newfeed during the 2016 election, as unsavory smear-merchants manipulated those who were willing to believe the absolute worst of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In the wake of Trump’s election, there has been a sustained and sudden backlash against these types of outlets and stories. Buzzfeed suggests that fake news may have outperformed real news on Election Day, The Washington Post quotes a fake news creator who is convinced he got Trump elected. In response to the backlash, The New York Times reports that both Google and Facebook are looking at ways to clamp down on fake news, with both already deciding to deny ad revenue to those sites.

Let me say right off the bat that I can’t get too outraged about fake news, because I don’t buy the narrative that fake news actually decided the election. That claim seems to misunderstand how the average voter absorbs these stories to begin with. People sharing stories about how Clinton secretly murdered FBI agents aren’t undecideds who are trying to decide one way or the other, they’re rabid anti-Clintonites.

In general, people who fall for fake stories do so when they turn off their BS detector because they want a story to be true (coughcoughRollingStonecough). Meanwhile, the people who don’t share their biases immediately recognize when a story is false. Fake news doesn’t change minds, it preaches to the choir. If people weren’t spreading fake news about Clinton and Trump, they’d have been spreading the very real, very troubling stories about Clinton and Trump.

There’s also a strain of paternalism here that I find unhealthy. The sentiment appears to be that the average American is too dumb and uneducated to tell fake news from real news, and therefore we need our betters in Silicon Valley to spoonfeed us the news. That the decisions from Google and Facebook came immediately after Trump’s win and after Politico reported that former Clinton advisors and other Democrats were organizing a campaign to combat fake news also doesn’t inspire confidence about their motives.

Regardless, let’s agree that there is a legitimate public interest in an informed citizenry, and therefore fake news ought to go away. I came across one story yesterday that exemplified why I believe that Facebook and Google taking the lead on that effort would be a mistake.

A professor of communications at Massachusetts’s Merrimack College named Melissa Zimdars recently created a list for people to check whether the outlet they were clicking on could be trusted, or whether it was “false, misleading, clickbait-y and satirical.” Zimdars’ list was widely shared on social media and passed along by mainstream media outlets like The LA Times, New York Magazine, The Boston Globe, Business Insider, and The Dallas Morning News.

There are some outlets on the list that basically everyone could agree are garbage, sites where every story is fabricated and that have urls like abcnews.com.co that are clearly intended to deceive. There are some that are obviously humorous satire websites (like The Onion ), some that think they’re humorous satire websites (like The Borowitz Report), and some that are conspiracy-mongers (like InfoWars and its various affiliates).

But others on the list are much more questionable: IJ Review, RedState, The Blaze, The Inquisitr, The Daily Wire? All but the Inquisitr are outlets that trend conservative, and even Inquisitr tended to be very critical of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. All are outlets I respect and that produce original scoops and incisive commentary. IJ Review even hosted a major presidential debate!

I’m sure I’ve read stories from those outlets that I’ve considered clickbait, or overblown, or misleading. But I can say the same of every outlet I’ve ever read, and yes, that includes the major mainstream outlets. When those outlets screw up, it’s treated as minor blemishes on otherwise impeccable records. When a small-time outlet screws up, it gets put on The List.

Most of the outlets on Zimdars’ list are marked with an indication of why there were added (Breitbart for example was flagged for “misleading and/or potentially unreliable information” and “clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions”). But most of the outlets I named aren’t tagged at all. The only reason why they shouldn’t be trusted is appears to be that Professor Zimdars just decided that they shouldn’t.

I can’t think of a good explanation for why The Daily Wire is a suspect website, but not Salon or Alternet or RawStory or ThinkProgress or any of the outlets that occupy a similar space on the left. The fact that the only major liberal website to be placed on the list was also anti-Clinton suggests to me that either the good professor or those submitting suggestions to her are operating with ideological blinders on.

Again, this is a highly-educated media professor writing this list. Facebook’s news curators back in the day were millennials fresh out of elite university and reportedly were mostly liberal. Perhaps you trust them to tell you what is and isn’t real news. Cynic that I am, I do not.

I don’t mean to pick on the professor, either. What is and is not “false” is sometimes a matter of hard fact, but at times it can be a judgment call. Is true that the Obama administration passed a regulation that would “require boys and girls to shower together in school”? Well that depends on whether you believe that anatomically male children who identify as female are still male. Politifact recently ruled it is objectively false to call transgender individuals by their genetic sex; would Google follow suit?

I barely even trust news outlets to police our own. It was the NBC-and-Comcast-backed Vox.com that declared that other outlets reporting on the Hillary Clinton email story was “fundamentally bullshit.” That from the outlet that constantly and uncritically reports on unverified hoaxes. (Will Vox be banned in the glorious new Truthing Revolution? Not a chance.)

If Google or Facebook wants to punish X outlet for Y story, at some point some human being somewhere will have to make that call. Who will be the paradigm of neutrality who has the ability to deny outlets millions in clicks and revenue based on a whim? Will they face any public accountability for their decisions? Who will watch the watchman?

While we’re on ideological biases, I think many of the loudest voices demanding a harsh stance on fake news ought to examine their own. Why are so many people (and the Clinton camp in particular) so eager to believe that it was fake news stories that put Trump in the Oval Office? Although they’ll never admit it, I suspect many liberals’ zeal for addressing this issue is because the alternative is admitting that it was voters’ real issues with Clinton that sunk her campaign.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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