Fixing broken news is not as easy as Jimmy Wales claims

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has created a news site called Wikitribune, aimed at ending the 'fake news' phenomenonIBTimes UK

Everyone thinks they can fix the problem perceived as "fake news" – or at least that's the way it seems.

Recently we've seen Facebook – one of the main distribution mechanisms for this stuff – pledge to try and eradicate the problem from its platform with Mark Zuckerberg committing to political action. There have been multiple groups established by governments, pledging millions of pounds to counter the hate speech and disinformation being spread online.

This week we saw Google take the pretty radical decision to alter its search algorithm to downgrade the type of content which it believes is inaccurate or misleading.

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And on Tuesday we saw Jimmy Wales, the man who brought us Wikipedia, launch WikiTribune, promising a new type of "evidence-based journalism" which will pair real reporters with a community of volunteers who will fact check articles in real time, and will provide "news by the people and for the people," according to Wales.

WikiTribune's new website makes the bold claim: "The news is broken and we can fix it."

It is easy to be sniffy about Wales' claims and his ambition. It is easy to dismiss his project as doomed from the off – and many have been – but there is clearly a demand for what he is offering. Just two days after it launched, 7,000 people have subscribed with real money to support the project, with four of the initial cadre of 10 journalists having already been hired.

Wales is promising true transparency in the reporting. Readers will be able to read, listen or watch unedited transcripts of interviews with sources. Facts will be checked by reporters and then checked again by the volunteer community – with articles amended and annotated in real time, live on the website.

For all the initial scepticism I had about this project – and I had a lot – I find myself thinking that this is a valid template for online journalism in the 21st century. The problem is that this top-down approach to fixing fake news will not solve the much wider problem.

Fake news is something which has been around for a long time and has been a major problem, but only now since it has impacted the US election – though to what degree remains unknown – are people beginning to sit up and take notice.

Companies like Facebook and Google have been in the spotlight for helping to spread news from untrusted sources, so many have welcomed them stepping up to the plate and doing something to try and combat the problem.

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But just think about that for a minute. We are handing over to Google and Facebook the power to decide what news is good and what is bad. What qualifications do the engineers at Mountain View and Menlo Park have to decide who should be trusted and who shouldn't?

As we have seen time and again from both companies, algorithms are not to be trusted when it comes to being arbiters of the news – and from speaking to sources at both companies, neither wants to be given this power.

"Fake news"

Part of the problem stems from the term "fake news" itself. It has essentially lost all meaning since US President Donald Trump picked it up as a stick to beat the mainstream media. No matter how much people want to make it out to be a relatively simple problem, this is not a black and white situation, where those on the far right peddle fake news while those on the liberal left are feeding us unadulterated truth.

CNN presenter Jake Tapper put it well on Wednesday night (26 April): "In a thriving democracy, truth matters. Facts matter. We learned in the campaign that Donald Trump can be cavalier about facts and truth... But you know what? There's also a lot of incendiary nonsense against president Trump on the left these days that is just as fake and just as free of any evidence. Both in progressive media and all over Twitter, being retweeted by otherwise sensible folks."

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Tapper concluded: "This is a time for all journalists to be extra careful about our own reporting, to make sure we adhere strictly to facts and cogent analysis. And this is the time for you, the public, to demand evidence from your leaders and from your media, even if you already agree with the politics of the person on your TV."

Monetising your content

You see the problem is that it is not just the Kremlin's disinformation machine which we have to worry about. We also have to worry about the myriad of blogs who straddle the line between reporting facts and trying to chase traffic – a practice which is increasingly become the norm among so-called mainstream media outlets.

Publications which in the past would not have reported something unless they have verified it themselves with several independent sources, no longer have that luxury in a world where being second is the same as being last when it comes to monetising your content.

But despite all these problems, the real issue is with ourselves. In an instant gratification society, being first will nearly always trump being right. And that is where Jimmy Wales and WikiTribune will suffer the most. Yes, it will have its dedicated audience, but this will be just a drop in the ocean compared to those getting their news from less reputable outlets.

Today, while most people still get their news from TV, the internet and social media in particular is fast catching up as the place where people consume news. Articles shared on social media are done so less for their news value and more for their headlines or the images that accompany them. Often articles are shared without ever being read. This is how so-called "fake news" spreads and how 64% of Donald Trump supporters end up believing Obama spied on the US president during the campaign without a single shred of evidence to back up the claim.

WikiTribune won't fix this problem. Google changing its algorithm won't fix this problem. Facebook pledging to do more won't fix this problem. With Russia and Donald Trump doing everything in their power to undermine the trust in the media in the last 12 months, it is hard to see anything fixing the broken news problem any time soon.

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