14th General Election (GE14)

SOCIAL media is how many people get their news these days. They see a news article posted on their social media timeline and if they find it interesting, they share it with friends. This is how news articles go viral.

This is fine if the news item is genuine. The problem is that increasingly, mixed in with the real news is a bunch of fake news. Sometimes, it’s easy to get duped because people tend to want to believe news that’s in line with their core beliefs.

The US election last year was marred by a preponderance of fake news spread by Russia using various online channels, notably Facebook. While it’s debatable whether all that fake news helped to tilt the election in favour of Donald Trump, what’s clear is that there was a lot of fake news floating about in social media.

Initially, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to downplay the impact of fake news. But he has since acknowledged the seriousness of the fake news attack and has vowed to try to stamp this out.

“I think it’s very clear at this point that the Russians tried to use these tools to sow distrust leading up to the 2016 election and afterwards,” Zuckerberg said this month at a talk he gave at the University of Kansas. “What they did was wrong. And it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to prevent them or anyone else from doing this again.”

Just last month, senior officials from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., to offer testimony and answer questions about Russia’s online activities aimed at influencing the election.

All three companies have since announced that they’d take part in a non-partisan initiative called “The Trust Project” that’s designed to help readers determine whether some piece of news is genuine or not. These companies will incorporate “trust indicators” into their news offering, with Facebook leading the charge.

The consortium has come up with a set of eight digital standards to help readers identify credible journalism. They are:

Best Practices: Who funds the news outlet, their mission, and their commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.

Author Expertise: Details about the journalist, including their expertise and other stories they’ve worked on.

Type of Work: Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis, and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.

Citations and References: Access to the sources behind the facts and assertions in a news story.

Methods: Motivation and process behind pursuing the story. Information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about doing it.

Locally Sourced: Lets people know that the story has local roots, origin, or expertise.

Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives.

Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process and ensuring accuracy.

Trust Project

Although the term “fake news” came to the fore last year due to Trump’s frequent reference to it, the effort to combat fake news began three years ago. Sally Lehrman, a former journalist turned teacher at Santa Clara University, began talking with news editors in 2014 about the impact the Internet has had on news.

This led to the creation of the Trust Project, which is hosted by her university’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Funders for the project include Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund.

“In today’s digitised and socially-networked world, it’s harder than ever to tell what’s accurate reporting, advertising or even misinformation,” said Lehrman when launching the Trust Project. “An increasingly sceptical public wants to know the expertise, enterprise and ethics behind a news story. The Trust Indicators put tools into people’s hands, giving them the means to assess whether news comes from a credible source they can depend on.”

The Trust Project is working with over 75 news organisations from around the world. Among the more famous brands are the German press agency DPA, The Economist, the Globe and Mail, and The Washington Post.

Facebook will be the first social media company to implement a trust indicator. What readers will see is a small “i” icon located next to news articles in their news feed. Clicking on it will allow them to see information about the publisher behind that story.

“We believe that helping people access this important contextual information can help them evaluate if articles are from a publisher they trust, and if the story itself is credible,” Facebook said in a statement. “This step is part of our larger efforts to combat false news and misinformation on Facebook — providing people with more context to help them make more informed decisions, advance news literacy and education, and working to reinforce indicators of publisher integrity on our platform.”

Facebook’s Publishing Tools allows publishers to provide additional information on topics such as ethics policy, corrections policy, fact-checking policy, ownership structure and masthead.

Meanwhile, Google and Twitter are expected to follow suit shortly. But will this effort work in combating fake news?

A long battle

The thing is, fake news will continue to appear in social media feeds because anybody can post links to anything they want to on social media. And there are countless blogs and dodgy websites out there peddling lies and half-truths.

So, fake news will persist but at least with the Trust Project, there’ll be a tool for discerning news consumers to do some vetting of their own, to know more about the publisher of the article and to decide whether that publisher is trustworthy.

Some — or perhaps most — people may not bother to check out the trust indicators though. In this age of short attention spans, many people don’t even read the full article and just glance at the headline. This initiative will do nothing to help those who won’t take the time to vet their news.

The Trust Indicator is not a silver bullet that will end fake news but it’s one of many tools to come to help consumers make informed decisions on what to believe and what to reject. As peddlers of fake news continue to find new ways to fool and influence people, media companies and social media platforms will continue to find new ways to combat this trend. This is just the start of a long battle.

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