We live in an era awash with information.
Ninety percent of the data on the internet has been created since 2016; more than a million new social media accounts are created each day, generating billions of social media posts and sharing billions of news articles, videos and other information sources, explains Jeff Schultz, digital campaign manager and SEO lead at Micro Focus.
About 80 percent of that data is “unstructured,” says Schultz, a description that includes text reporting of news and news-related opinion. In other words, each day sees the creation of more reporting and analysis of news and world events than any one person could ever read on their own.
This vast increase in media coverage has made information about the world and its events more accessible than ever. As information has become more plentiful and accessible, however, trust in that information has eroded.
Yet the same environment that has engendered a lack of trust in available media information has also given rise to new methods for verifying media sources.
The Media’s Trust Crises
Trust in media coverage remains shaky. Although the 19th Annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in media had increased between 2018 and 2019, only 47 percent of the general population expressed trust in media. Approximately one in five respondents said the media were the least trustworthy worldwide institution.
Trust in media also tended to divide along political lines, with 69 percent of polled Democrats stating they trusted the media but only 33 percent of polled Republicans stating so.
A 2017 Monmouth University poll, however, found that 77 percent of Americans believe that most traditional television and news media outlets report fake news. Along party lines, that split was 89 percent of Republican respondents, 82 percent of independent respondents and 61 percent of Democrat respondents.
“These findings are troubling, no matter how you define ‘fake news,’” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Confidence in an independent fourth estate is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Ours appears to be headed for the intensive care unit.”
Media trust is only part of the trust crisis facing the digital sphere. “From issues of brand safety associated with the murkiness of programmatic, audience-based buying, to growing cries of ‘fake news,’ to undisclosed sharing of consumer data by unknown middlemen, to a slew of personal data breaches across the web, consumers have lost trust with marketers, media publishers and social platforms,” says Geoff Ramsey, cofounder of eMarketer.
Despite this lack of trust, or perhaps because of it, the adults polled in the Edelman Trust Barometer expressed an increasing desire for change. Between 2018 and 2019, engagement with the news rose 22 points on Edelman’s scale, including a 14-point rise in individuals who consume news at least once a week and who share news articles online.
Authentication Tools for the News
According to the Monmouth University poll, not only do 77 percent of Americans believe that media outlets occasionally report fake news, but 42 percent believe these outlets deliberately do so to push an agenda. Only 26 percent believed that fake news was reported solely by accident.
Media outlets have a role to play in combating this lack of trust in the veracity of their reports. “It’s not sufficient for media to demand transparency of all other actors. It must also act in transparency,” David Young and Nadia Shiyyab write at Youth Times.
Both media companies and major tech companies, including Google, are taking steps to combat untrustworthy or fabricated news articles. In March 2019, Google announced two new tools to help news organizations and journalists identify and debunk misinformation. Papers like the Washington Post and the Miami Herald have spearheaded the use of these tools, providing feedback to Google about ways to improve them.
“This is such a rapidly changing environment in terms of how we make money, how people consume our content, and how we distribute our content. We are doing everything we can to be nimble,” says Beth Diaz, vice president of audience development and analytics at the Washington Post.
Yet the process of regaining trust can be a slow one, which may explain why so many of Edelman’s respondents were keen to take matters into their own hands.
Tips for Choosing Authentication Tools
Various digital tools can help readers who uncertain how to evaluate the news articles they encounter online. These tools vary from relatively passive browser extensions to apps that allow readers to engage in the process of evaluating news sources and reward them for doing so.
Find Tools With Strong Backing
One example is Trusted News, a Chrome extension that flags sites using a three-step system similar to traffic lights. The extension will produce a green check mark, yellow minus sign or red exclamation point depending on how trustworthy the information is deemed to be. The extension can also warn about factors like political bias, sexism, racism, toxicity and clickbait.
Trusted News uses a database of information from sites like PolitiFact, Snopes and Wikipedia as its basis for comparison when rating an article’s trustworthiness.
“For now the way it works is that you have these sources … and what they will do is essentially give their rating on a particular site,” says Ben Williams, the director of ecosystems at eyeo, Trusted News’s parent company. For instance, if an article comports with information on PolitiFact and Wikipedia but not on Snopes, it’s nonetheless likely to be flagged as trustworthy.
When it launched in 2018, Trusted News received media attention from several websites that specialize in technology or in tools for simplifying various tasks. For instance, CNET editor Taylor Martin and LifeHacker writer David Murphy both covered the tool, discussing its capabilities and also its limitations (such as the fact that it’s currently available only on Chrome).
Work With Others
Crowdsourcing tools help people combat fake news by flagging questionable or unverified articles. By participating, readers can not only receive alerts about dubious sources, but also help flag these articles when their own knowledge base indicates that an article may be untrustworthy.
For example, Trive is a program that pays users in cryptocurrency for their assistance in flagging fake or untrustworthy news. “This is a way for us to take the power of crowds to do verification work away from news organizations and give it to the people,” says David Mondrus, Trive’s founder and CEO.
For Chrome users, the rbutr extension alerts readers when they visit a page that “has been disputed, rebutted or contradicted elsewhere on the internet,” according to the extension’s homepage. Users can also connect a page they’re reading to a rebuttal that appears elsewhere, giving other users additional information and context with which to evaluate online media.
In the absence of digital tools to help authenticate online news sources, readers can take steps to evaluate someone’s reporting themselves.
For example, University of Michigan researcher Lauren Lutzke discovered that when readers spent time thinking about a list of guidelines for evaluating news sources before reading news online, they “were less likely to trust, ‘like’ (in Facebook-speak) or share posts based on fake news.”
Readers of online news may be able to recreate this effect for themselves by thinking about questions similar to those used in the study:
- “Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?”
- “Does the information in the post seem believable?”
- “Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization?”
- “Is the post politically motivated?”
One benefit to hesitating before you click share? Doing so may reduce the amount of fake news circulating online and thus the incentive to create fake news. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that false stories on Twitter were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. These stories could reach an audience of 1500 people six times faster than true stories, say researchers Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral.
Whether you use digital tools for assistance or rely on your own judgement, simply thinking twice before you click share may have a big impact.
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