Is fake news the modern day junk food?

We all have a responsibility as news consumers to ensure we’re maintaining a balanced diet of sources to help minimise our exposure to misinformation and fake news.  

The New Yorker editor David Remnick took to the stage at Cannes Lions last month to discuss how brands can maintain trust in an era of misinformation. While Remnick likened the proliferation of fake news to issues of climate change, I believe there’s a better analogy. One that leads us towards the beginnings of a real solution to our fact-lite predicament.

Fake news is the junk-food of information. It tastes good. It’s cheap to produce, bitesize and deliciously shareable. And like a frozen horse meat lasagne, it’s terrible quality. And just like a diet based around burgers and fries – eat only junk news, and your health will suffer.

We need to treat the news we consume in the same way we treat the food we eat. Like food, we need a balanced diet of information to remain healthy. Like food, we should care about where it came from and what went into producing it. We should assess our informational intake in the same way we check the levels of saturated fat, or sugar in the supermarket.

The problem is, that’s increasingly hard to do. One of the findings from this year’s Digital News Report published by the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism was that people are increasingly choosing and trusting news that is selected for them by an algorithm (social, search and aggregators) over editorially curated content (direct, email or notifications). 54% of respondents to the Reuters survey stated a preference for algorithmic news selection – increasing to 64% for Under 35s.

But algorithmic news selection is like getting a hedonistic friend to select your food. The aim is to give you what you want – not what you need – filling your basket with tasty bites, shareable ‘shocking’ nuggets, rather than a broad range of viewpoints that keep you informationally ‘healthy’. And while we love these friends, we know that they aren’t always reliable and good for us. It’s no surprise that the Reuters report found that only 43% of respondents declared that the news could be trusted – down from 50% last year.

(Wo)man cannot live on kebabs – or poor-quality news – alone. The risk of relying on algorithmically selected content as your primary or only source of news is that you only see one side of the story. Or worse, you get duped into believing fiction is fact. On Facebook, for example, every link posted by your friends looks the same – whether it’s from The Guardian or the worst fake news site. There’s no way to check the quality of the information.

We need algorithms that aim to give us better quality information, not just what we want to read. Social media, news media, publishers and aggregators have a responsibility to tackle the issue and regulators need to hold them accountable when they fail to do so. By taking a more balanced approach to our news consumption, we get a more holistic view of events happening in the world.

Just as it got us into this mess, technology will most likely play a role in providing the tools to get us out. Some of the platforms are beginning talks with independent fact-checking agencies and technology providers to help them monitor and manage the problem, and this should be encouraged.

Fake news isn’t going to go away. It’s been around in one form or another since the Epic of Gilgamesh. Regulation might help but it’s technology and better algorithms that don’t fill your feed with the information equivalent of frozen pizza that’s really required. As with our nutrition, ultimately, we have to take some responsibility ourselves. We decide what news sources we consume – and we need to make sure we get a varied diet.

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