The 2016 U.S. presidential election set off a firestorm of rage against media companies for their culpability in spreading fake news and misinformation during the election.

While 2016 certainly wasn’t the first example of how impactful fake news can be, the proliferation of misinformation during that campaign emphasized just how big of a problem fake news has become.

Consumer Trust in the Media Is at an All-Time Low

In a look back at the coverage, an analysis of major news sites during the final three months of the election by BuzzFeed shows that the 20 most-shared fake news articles on Facebook outperformed the 20 most-shared actual news articles from mainstream outlets during the same time period.

The fact that so many voters could be misled at such an important time as a presidential election led to angry backlash by the public and forced the issue of fake news to the forefront.

While the ire post-election was especially directed towards digital media like Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to alert consumers about the escalation in fake news stories, traditional media outlets didn’t escape the election cycle unscathed. In fact, they have been criticized just as sharply for failing to alert consumers about fake news, and for even sharing some of it in their reporting.

That anger has contributed to a steep drop in consumer trust in media companies. A 2019 poll by Gallup found that 41 percent of American’s have confidence in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” That is a drop of 31 percentage points since consumer trust was at its highest point, in 1976. Interestingly, Gallup’s trust barometer hit its lowest point in 2016, just before the last presidential election.

Why That Lack of Trust Is Dangerous

“Ultimately, government and society benefits from a free and high-quality news media,” writes James Ball, global editor at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

At a foundational level, a functioning democratic society depends on the ability of citizens to make educated choices at the polls. Citizens depend on news media to provide them with factual, unbiased information they can use to make those decisions. When the public no longer trusts the media to do this, there is a real threat to a democracy.

“In the end, the democratic process is about bridging differences,” says Lee Hamilton, distinguished scholar at Indiana University. “This is virtually impossible without a solid base of information and analysis,” continues Hamilton. “Our democracy needs well-informed citizens making decisions based on facts about both policies and politicians.”

When the public distrusts the media, you get an ambivalent public. As the Edelman Trust Barometer survey notes, the loss of faith in the media is leading to people cutting back on or completely abandoning their consumption of news.

That trend should be disturbing to everyone, but especially to journalists who are charged with keeping the public informed about current events. This is why combatting fake news and misinformation is necessary to rebuild the trust between the news media and the public.

That responsibility doesn’t belong solely to those in the media business. Media professionals like us do, however, have some responsibility to not only call out disinformation before it spreads but to also educate the public on how to spot misinformation.

Young businessman working on his laptop in office; fake news concept

Education, Not Censorship, Stops the Spread of Fake News

There has been a big push against media companies to do more to combat disinformation and misinformation. A lot of that weight has fallen on digital media outlets, especially social media, because of the user-generated nature of those platforms.

In response, Twitter and Facebook have both taken up initiatives to identify and call out fake news.

Facebook has created what it is calling “war rooms” and has partnered with third-party fact-checking organizations to work toward stopping the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, The Guardian’s Sam Levin reports. The company is making efforts to increase the transparency of political advertising, to detect and take down campaigns by “bad actors,” to prevent fake and spam accounts, and to ban misinformation specific to voting that could lead to voter suppression, Levin writes.

Some of the steps Twitter has taken include purchasing Fabula AI, a U.K.-based company that uses machine learning to catch fake news. The company has also stopped accepting political ads in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election and is labeling tweets from politicians who violate its rules, as NBC News’ Jason Abbruzzese reports.

While these efforts are commendable in their authenticity, the problem is that the policing of public discourse walks a tight line of censorship, which is the antithesis of a free society. The risk of inhibiting free speech is too high to champion this approach of positioning content distributors as gatekeepers of information as the best and only solution.

Educating the public, not censoring the news, is the path that a free society must take in battling fake news. Consumers must be the ones to judge for themselves the veracity of the information they consume.

“It’s up to users to approach the 21-century media environment, driven by news on social media, with more attention, care and skill,” stresses Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of the Reboot Foundation.

The role of media companies here is to identify the fake news and alert the public, not delete or censor the information. This approach, though, also requires that the public be taught media literacy skills to discern fact from fiction. And it’s up to those with the knowledge, insights and fact-checking capabilities to share that information with the public.

Blur image video switch of Television Broadcast, working with video and audio; fake news concept

Media Companies Have a Role to Play in Teaching Media Literacy

An educated populace is the key to combating fake news and misinformation. People have to be taught how to distinguish credible sources and stories from those that are false.

Media companies are perfectly positioned to be the drivers of such public education efforts. And the public expects them to step into this role. In 2017, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked respondents about how fake news is challenging publishers and platforms, and whether it’s an issue that can be improved upon. The respondents said they expect interested parties “will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment.”

Those expectations place a moral obligation on media organizations as one of the key actors in the information environment. The things that journalists are trained to do on an everyday basis to confirm the truth of a story need to be shared with the public.

Learning more about the actors in a story and their affiliations and connections can help consumers scrutinize sources in all news stories. They should be educated on how to identify and question shaky or unverified facts in a story. With these skills, consumers can take the reins on differentiating between truth and falsehoods in news stories on any platform.

And by working to educate consumers, media organizations can begin to rebuild the positive relationships they once had with the public. This will help protect the foundation of a free society and ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself in future elections.

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