When News Became Entertainment
A recent Stanford research report highlighted the struggle students face in identifying fake news. A doctored photo of mutated daisy, growing near the Fukushima nuclear power plant (as posted on a social media site Imgur), had most students stumped. Only 20% of students showed critical thinking skills, calling into question the source of the material. While a whopping 40% didn’t question the material at all.
The report issued by the Stanford History of Education Group is concerning, especially today where there are few barriers of entry for those looking to publish fake news content on the web. The recent US election added accelerant to the problem: the site fakenewschecker.com identifies 376 what it terms as 'untrustworthy news sources' on the web. In many cases the urls are most deceptive: I pulled up one called USA News Insider, which looks very legit from the surface – until I got hammered with popups and interstitials.
Traffic numbers for these web properties are high. Money received from digital advertising is big business. Social media sites like Facebook provide the best means of distribution, with the capacity for individuals to tailor their news feed to any bias that suits them; creating an echo chamber effect.
Much ado of late has been given to the alt-right news site Breitbart, and the recent appointment of their ex-CEO Stephen Bannon who has taken a significant advisory role in the upcoming Trump administration. Although recent boost in traffic numbers can be attributed to some curiosity, Breitbart still boost 31 million monthly unique visitors to its website. That’s over 10% if the entire US internet population. And although several big brands have pulled advertising from Breitbart, it hasn’t hampered their user-ship or their economics. It’s easier, and less costly, to write fiction than non-fiction.
What is real, what is entertainment, and what is propaganda? The champions of news reporting based on collecting facts, hard work, risk, oversight - are dust and bones. And have been since the advent of 24-hour cable news, and the birth of the Fox News Channel. As consumption of news has become more and more fragmented, the vehicles that deliver news are less discriminating about content, and primarily focused on usability. An Accenture Interactive survey of 1,000 consumers showed that 34% found print the most valuable source for news. 51% said social media is their preferred news channel, closing rapidly on television at 57%. This is a very disturbing trend; especially as traditional news mediums are slowly becoming insolvent. Here in Canada, the Trudeau government is analysing the impact of Canada’s two biggest newspaper conglomerates possibly going out of business, as mounting losses and layoffs continue.
All these manifestations pose the question: Are consumers even interested in unbiased news and the truth? As a species, are we locked into behaviour that is pre-eminently based on gratification? Is our consumption and understanding of the truth becoming a brand we buy?