Setting The Stage
Disinformation is nothing new. As long as there has been strategy, there has been disinformation. Methodologies for identifying it have been established and reestablished along with the ebb and flow of power-holders throughout history. It was only a matter of time before the connectivity that defined the rise of globalization was leveraged by malicious social engineers. The identities of main players and the motivations behind their actions are a cause of much speculation. Many have come to the conclusion that one of the most significant lessons from the advent of the fake news debate is that main stream journalism is broken.
Web 2.0 revolutionized traditional reporting in the 1990s and early 2000s. The internet’s advantages over printed newspapers are well known and the trend of disruption continues to evolve. In the early years of digital reporting, editors, the gatekeepers of news journalism, had to account for a new phenomenon, separate from the facts and insight they’d sought to report. In order to survive in a clickable world, media outlets followed the new paradigm: sell your ad space. This highly lucrative business model quickly outpaced the revenue streams generated by readership demand.
A Broken Model
In point of fact, selling ad space and digital content has become the defacto rubric of the times. The free software that most of us use isn’t developed and maintained out of the goodness of Silicon-Valley hearts. Your information is quantified, sold, and taken to the bank. In addition to providing objective coverage, editors now have to drive internet traffic to webpages. The news cycle shortened, along with our attention spans, leading to the current era of journalism in which media outlets seek to distinguish themselves by reporting first and not best. This created an ecosystem in journalism where confirmation bias across the ideological spectrum is tailored to the established beliefs of a consumer, rather than impartial facts being presented to challenge and inform them. This seismic shift is the bedrock that fake news is predicated upon and its continued exploitation is shaking the establishment to the ground.
Public outcry has forced major organizations like Facebook into rethinking their media platforms. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been doing damage control this past week in an attempt to instill user confidence. Most recently, he reached out to his social media base, internally stating:
“We take misinformation seriously. Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is still more work to be done.”
While it remains unclear how a reactive approach to combating fake news will be effective, Mr. Zuckerberg did elude to the heart of the issue at hand. The resistance to fake news economics is fundamental to winning the fight for the soul of news. However, rewriting the algorithms that match users with “news” related to their interests (also part of the data they capture and sell) represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. The value of a news article should not be dependent on how many people have “clicked through” to view it. That information may be quantifiable by advertisers, but its relation to the news is obvious and its effects are detrimental. Transparency is needed to provide additional information about the news itself. Who to trust and how to trust them is forming the core of new thinking about journalism.
Dr. Jonathan David Aronson, professor of communication and international relations at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, shared his thoughts on trust with ETHNews.
In journalism, “trust is the new arms race. Who watches the watchers? Trust is built over years and lost in an instant. Reputation and trustworthiness are critical to transparency but the devil is in the details.”
New Life Through Innovation
Fake news permeated real news headlines in 2016, inspiring a movement to take the news back and reestablish trust with consumers in 2017. This trust-based response is being led by Wikipedia visionary Jimmy Wales, who purpose-built his latest creation, The WikiTribune, to abolish fake news through disrupting and revolutionizing how trust is earned in the journalism industry. By empowering online community volunteers to act as editors, Wales is trying to out maneuver bad actors and redefine best practices for reporting. Basing his approach on a combination of old and new school reporting ideologies, Wales has made WikiTribune a separate and independent entity from his past ventures, signaling early his commitment to credibility.
While this initial posturing is important in calculating WikiTribune’s intentions, the removal of professional editors from the journalistic pipeline is an unproven methodology and it may fail from a sheer lack of user interest. Moreover, the model currently lacks protections against users driving their own opinions and agendas into the news. This may dilute WikiTribune’s effectiveness in delivering the much-needed transparency it seeks to provide.
Recently, Jimmy Wales reached out to the blockchain community through a popular social media outlet to generate excitement for his reporting concept. While discussing how journalism could be subject-specific and directed by online volunteers, the development community took the opportunity to draw correlations between Wales’ original starting point and functionalities that are intrinsic to the Ethereum blockchain. Whether or not these correlations resonated with Wales is unknown. Going forward, WikiTribune will draw more upon the trust associated with its founder than upon the new model it is attempting to implement.
As of today, WikiTribune has hired only four of the 10 journalists it is hoping will establish the baseline for its new platform. Blockchain technology remains poised to breakthrough into journalism, much in the same way VPN technology did in the 2000s. Providers like Pramanika are close behind WikiTribune in developing the technology needed to breathe new life into journalism. As with everything blockchain, the future is being defined by identifying problems that need fixing. Advancing technological networks must take place alongside evolving human psychology to truly capitalize on what blockchain has to offer. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other, but many feel WikiTribune is the best effort thus far.