Some of the backlash following the surprise results of the recent presidential election is the focus on the bogus news sites that were ubiquitous on social media during the dreadfully long campaign season. I’ve witnessed many conversations and multiple, people of good faith ask: how do we know when a news source is biased?
The latest thing on social media is the creation of lists of fake news sites for people to avoid. Everyone seems to be eager to jump in as a consultant. LA Times, AOL News, US News & World Report, Snopes, of course, and many, many others. The problem is compounded when the people reporting the list of fake news sites are charged with being misleading.
Even the answer to the question of what news sites to avoid depends on who is answering the question. According to Scott Shackford of, Editor of Reason.com, false news and satirical news sites are one thing, but slanted news sites are another. If the news being reported isn’t false, who’s to say how slanted is “fake”?
That’s part of the problem. We are all biased in some way(s) or another. News sites, even the legitimate ones, have slants that lean left or right (or other). Whether that has always been so or is just a phenomenon of our current social fabric is anyone’s guess.
Clearly, though, the proliferation of problematic (fake or hyperbolic) news sources is an issue that has caused much consternation. It isn’t hard to understand why after such a rancorous election. After all, kids in Macedonia actually made up false news stories, most of them pro-Trump, to generate ad revenue. People swallowed them hook, line and sinker, like the story with the headline: The Pope Endorses Donald Trump.
Some of the fake news sources should be obvious. The headlines are sensationalized and speak to the desires of people with the leaning they are trying to trigger. We call that kind of attention grabbing headline “Clickbait”, but clickbait isn’t only the province of the fake news sites. Clickbait is (almost) standard practice for all online news and advertising. Even legitimate sources use clickbait to generate traffic.
How else does anyone get noticed in the highly trafficked world of the Internet?
Maybe we will wise up to clickbait tactics and begin to shun them. They will always work for a certain segment of the population (like TV advertising for instance), but people will learn to avoid clickbait after hundreds, or thousands … or maybe hundreds of thousands … of disappointing clicks.
We learn slowly. But we learn…. Some of us.
The game will continue to be played on, of course. It will evolve and change and become more sophisticated. But, I think it will also begin to gain some equilibrium as we all become more sophisticated in our online consumption.
It isn’t much different than what we have experienced in print for decades. The legitimate news sources have a look and feel (one that we might call, admittedly, boring). While the tabloids have a different look and feel – much more engaging, but … cheesy …and frankly … trashy.
We ought to take some hints from that.
But, the Internet is still relatively new in the scheme of things. We haven’t learned those lessons well. But, we’re learning. There is also a difference between false and opinionated.
We still live the shadow of expectation that a news source is biased and objective. That was the journalistic standard for decades and a point of pride for any self-respecting journalist and legitimate media outlet. It was that pride in the objectivity of reporting that chiefly distinguished the New York Times from the National Enquirer.
It’s the difference between fact and rumor, truth and half-truth (or no truth at all).
Then there is the difference between Time Magazine and People Magazine. They both report factually, but one is “real” news, and the other is entertainment.
Even the real news, though, often comes with opinion and analysis, and that opinion and analysis always comes with a bias. Some news magazines are aimed at balanced, reporting and opinion, but others, like the National Review and the Atlantic, are highly regarded (generally) but have a clear right or left slant.
In fact, news with bias, either in the skew of the content or in the facts and stories chosen to be reported, is more the norm today than the exception. Some news outlets slant more than others. People even disagree on whether a particular news source is slanted (at all) and, if so, which way.
As Shackford observes, Facebook, Google, etc. would be within their rights, as private entities, to censor the news posters on their sites. First Amendment protections don’t apply to private parties. Only the government is prohibited from censoring speech. Private parties are free to post or censor all they want. But, he says:
It’s within Facebook’s power and right to do so, but it would be a terrible decision on their end. They wouldn’t just be preventing the spreading of factually incorrect, fabricated stories. They would be blocking a lot of opinionated analysis from sites on the basis of their ideologies. The company would face a backlash for such a decision that could impact their bottom line.
I agree that social media sites could be treading on ground that is pretty mushy if they do anything but limit the obviously fake (as in false) news sites. Even then, some people like tabloid news! Someone must be buying the National Enquirers that adorn every grocery check-out aisle. There’s a market for everything!
And that fact alone suggests that the purveyors of social media sites are not apt to go very far (or long) in their censorship…. at least if they care about traffic to their sites.
Satire cites are purposely false and “misleading”, but that is exactly the point. There is nothing misleading about them (other than for those not in on the joke). Why would Facebook want to censor the Onion? We would certainly not be enriched by the decision.
Maybe online news sources will congeal into some kind of accepted status quo, like the boring (legitimate) print news and the racy tabloid kind. You will know it when you see it, kind of like pornography, which seems to defy definitive description (according to our Supreme Court).
In the end, the angst over fake and hyperbolic “news” sources seems to be nothing but a knee jerk reaction to a particularly strained and much too long presidential campaigning season. I expect that the number of the sites will decrease as the election furor dissipates to more business as usual and people go on with their lives.
There will still be an audience for the fake news. Some people just like it that way. People will still decry those sources when they influence the next election (if we haven’t learned anything from this election), though the shoe could be on the other foot, and the angst may have a conservative flavor. And, if we haven’t learned anything, maybe we will get just what we deserve.
Personally, I don’t think Google should censor the news. Censorship would be “censureship” for them, and that is bad for business.
 This Professor’s List of ‘Fake News’ Sites Goes Predictably Wrong (complaining of the slant against rightward leaning news sites, like Breitbart)
 BuzzFeedNews, How Teens in the Balkans are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News, November 3, 2016. For instance, one news story with the headline, “This is the News of the Millenium!” claimed “unnamed FBI sources” reported that Hillary Clinton would be indicted for crimes related to her email in 2017. They have around 140 different websites, including WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clickbait (“Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks.”