Who’s To Blame for Fake News?

Fake news comes in a variety of forms. It can appear as seemingly harmless satire masked as real news like the Onion or The Daily Show which leans on irony to honestly differentiate itself. It can also take the form of partisan propaganda masquerading as opinion which dominates much of our broadcast network media. It can even appear as well intended journalism published with inadequate adherence to journalistic standards or even just a flat out hoax. Ultimately, all of these forms of fake news pose serious problems to the stability of our national republic and our democratic process by eroding both the confidence in our governmental system, it’s institutions as well as the 4th Estate by creating confusion within our public discourse over the fundamental common ground of facts that our civil dialogue depends on. If we can’t agree on what the truth is, it is very difficult to agree on anything else.

Whether it’s an outright fake or propaganda, false information does nothing to help our society come together. It is the engine that drives discontent, division, confusion and hatred. In the war of ideas it is easily weaponized into logical fallacies and quickly be used to rhetorically attack opponents, dismiss rational arguments, smear reputations, spread fear and ultimately undermine the very idea of our great national endeavor of working towards a more perfect union. Falsehood is an abomination and a corruption of our nations greatest freedom and most sacred right that is the foundation of our entire civilization; the right to freedom of speech. It turns our best quality as a society against us. For that, we must be compelled to look at not only at what causes the prevalence of fake news in our modern dialogue and media but ways to discourage, countermand and fight against it while at the same time protecting the very principle of freedom of speech that allows it to exist.

Much blame can be laid at the footsteps of an educational system that fails to teach our children the general knowledge in civics and society to be able to understand the difference between what is fake and what is real. Many parents have abdicated their responsibility in this to the educational system and the state, failing in themselves to teach their children enough about the world to value standards and truth over gossip and innuendo. Society at large has more children being raised by overburdened, single parents and orphans than ever before, whom legitimately depend on the help of the state in teaching their children. Editors, in an attempt to remain relevant in an extremely competitive and rapidly changing industry have abandoned a great deal of journalistic rigor and permitted their writers to publish material that, with each increasingly poor iteration lowers the bar in an ever widening downward spiral. Publishers accepted bias in order to achieve ideological goals, having long since abandoned their principles of what it really means to serve the public as guardians of the 4rth estate. The willingness to exchange the idea of their role as defenders of our constitutional representative democracy for of a salacious, catchy, clickbait headline just to attract the most readers in order to make a buck makes them either the easy villain in the real story of fake news or the unwitting partner. I would argue that they are the latter of the two.

In the days before the World Wide Web, the publishing industry operated on a synergistic relationship of the reader, editor, publisher and advertisers. The value and role of each of these is extremely important in understanding what is going on now. Editors, seeking to ensure that the readership’s best interest was met held and established journalistic standards and were responsible for both retaining and growing their audience. Their success was tied directly to their integrity as disreputable journalist drove away paying subscribers while reputable journalism helped build an audience. Publishers protected the interest of the publication in the eyes of the advertiser, ensuring that the editorial ideology didn’t run afoul and negatively affect the reputation of the advertiser with the public.

This duality of responsibility  within a publication protected both the good of the public and the profitability of the publication’s ability to provide a service to it’s advertisers. The relationship between the publications readers and the advertisers helped keep that duality in balance.  If the publication’s editorials stepped over the line of social acceptance, the public could call for a boycott of it’s advertisers. In turn, the advertisers could pressure the publisher economically by withdrawing it’s advertising dollars; thus giving power to the “invisible hand” of the public in our capitalist system.

It was by no means perfect and false news, bad journalism, propaganda, defamation and hoaxes all existed in that system too. I think it’s safe to say, those checks and balances worked better than what we have now. The public was informed, entertained and the advertisers could market their wares and both could be done with confidence in the 4th estate as a near equal partner in our society as our three branches of government. It encouraged editors to maintain journalistic standards. Reputations and empires within media were built on this model.

That is, unfortunately, no longer the case. With the rise of the Internet over the past 20 years, most media publishers have started transitioning from print to digital; many struggling to not only understand how to transition their business models but also the revenue to keep them profitable. Most have failed to do that well. As a result, the entire news industry is flailing like a sailor jumping from a sinking ship hoping they don’t freeze to death in the icy deep. More than 100 daily papers have vanished nationwide since 2004. Those that remained had only one life-raft in the tumultuous digital ocean; Google.

Between 1994 and 2014, the profession has shed over 20,000 jobs, representing a 39% decline. ~ journalism.com

Sixteen years ago, Google turned it’s novel search engine site into what has become, the largest single advertising platform in the entire existence of humanity. Starting with only 350 advertisers in 2000, it has grown to over a million advertisers and a $60 Billion annual powerhouse. As part of that evolution, Google got into the market of helping deliver advertising for publishers. In effect, digital publishers don’t need to have an internal advertising department. Google does it all for you. It finds the advertisers, collects the ads, publishes them to your website, bills the advertisers and pays you your share after they take their (sizable) cut.

One in every four dollars of ad revenue in 2015 came in the form of digital, a small bump up from 2014 and a sizable rise from the 5% of ad revenue digital sources made up in 2006. Gains in digital ad revenue, however, have not made up for the continued decline in print revenue. ~ journalism.com

As most publishers looked to transition their print to digital platforms like the web or mobile space, they looked to Google, not their advertising departments for these solutions because, in theory, it was just superior, more efficient and more cost effective. For advertisers, this was a watershed moment. Advertising online is upwards of 20 times more effective than print advertising and unlike print advertising, the advertiser can measure the effectiveness of any ad campaign at every stage, all the way to the individual sale. In print, it’s just a theory as to how much an ad campaign contributes to sales of a product while digitally it’s empirical.

With the explosion of ad networks like Google AdSense and DoubleClick, came the drive for traffic. The very nature of digital publishing is uniquely different than print. Digital mediums carry with them the ability for virility unlike print publications. The power of content sharing means that any single piece of content can drive more ad revenue. So the more viral content becomes, the more profitable it is. However, with the growth of ad networks and viral content also came sponsored content; advertising for content, to increase the viral nature of content as a way to increase views and revenue.

Because ad networks operate as an intermediary between the advertiser and the publisher, publishers are no longer easily able to sell advertising directly. More so, advertisers have little incentive to devote ad budgets to individual publishers when they can reach more consumers by spending the same dollars on an ad network. This began what could now be referred to as the “ethereal hand” of the free market. Unfortunately, without anyone really paying attention, this ethereal hand works in direct opposition to the age old principle that our 4th estate has so successfully operated under.

In the digital world, the readership of a publication no longer has any economic force with which to impact a publisher and thus influence it’s editorial bias, standards, ethics or decency. So long as publishers rely on ad networks, editors will lack the pressure from the publisher provided to them by advertisers as a result of consumer response. Moreover, because advertisers themselves, even if they block specific publishers, have little power to influence them because the ad networks can readily and easily fill these advertising slots with other advertisers ready and willing to leverage the publishers audience. The end result of this will be a continuing decline in the quality of content and an increase in an appeal to the bassist, lowest qualities of human nature. To put it simply, the power of the people has been removed. The invisible hand has been overridden by the digital ethereal hand.

Neither can we, nor should we entrust companies like Google, who operate these ad networks to function as the protectors of the 4th estate and the public interest. These intermediaries have no vested interest in the quality of the discourse, only that the discourse continues regardless of the quality. In fact, they profit more from discontent, polarity and division rather than civil discussion and the elevation of social understanding and common ground. While public outrage and blame towards companies like Google might seem, at first, like a reasonable manifestation of the invisible hand, it has very little actual influence as an agent of change. However, currently that seems to be, for the most part, the public’s only recourse. In the absence of a reasonable recourse, the public will inevitably take action through government which puts our freedom of speech in jeopardy.

There is, however, an emerging alternative; crowd-funding. Crowd-funded websites frequently replace advertisers with a direct appeal to their readers for their revenue. A model popular for sites like Wikipedia and Wikileaks. This disconnects the entire dynamic of the advertiser and removes the publisher’s traditional role as a safeguard for ensuring that the audience makes up a clear demographic for the merchants marketing, leaving the editor the freedom to ensure higher standards for content creation. After all, he only needs to make his audience happy and the companies success will be directly reflected by the audience it has. At first glance, this sounds like an amazing solution. However, this too has an innate flaw that can be just as destructive and supportive of fake news and that’s unfettered influence from contributors to the editorial prerogative. By relying on donations alone, instead of a mixture of subscriptions and advertising, the publisher becomes fully dependent on a steady stream of contributions. This could easily lead to a corruption of the press through undisclosed politically motivated contributions under a charitable guise. Step out of the politically-correct line and your bottom line suffers. Cater to the bias and you succeed more. Without the advertiser and the full dynamic of the capitalist system behind you, it’s easy to fall into being nothing more than a single-minded, propagandist echo chamber and ultimately an ideal agent of fake news.

Ultimately, there’s no one party that’s responsible for the prevalence of fake news in modern media. It is, inexplicably, the collapse of the traditional dynamic between readers, editors, publishers and advertisers and the injection of both advertising networks and social networks that creates a new dynamic. That new dynamic has yet to find it’s way of balancing the public good and the profitability of the market to ensure both have long-term stability. As a result, publishers must make a concerted effort to help restore that balance. Editors need to return to higher editorial standards, for themselves, their journalists and push back against their publishers. Ad networks, likewise must make more of an effort not to disturb that balance more than their business model inherently does. Advertisers should develop direct relationships, when practical with publishers. Readers need to become smarter users and find new ways to push past the ethereal hand with the invisible hand. With any luck, the government won’t try to solve these issues. Until these things change, we can expect fake news, propaganda and gossip to be prominent if not even dominant in the digital era.