The news industry has a trust problem.
In the UK only 43% of people believe the news media can be trusted, according to the latest Reuters Digital News Report, down from 50% in 2016.
That has prompted a lot of soul-searching by the publishers, who are justifiably worried that a lack of trust lessens their ability to speak truth to power. That fall in trust can partly be attributed to the particularly polarising campaigns around Brexit and the US election and their aftermath, which has seen ‘the media’ often cast as the enemy of the people.
And much of that antipathy can be summed up by one now-ubiquitous phrase: ‘Fake news’. Barely a day passes without at least one publication, no matter its pedigree, facing accusations of being fake news.
But how exactly did a term that barely existed a year ago come to exert such a toll?
Towards the middle of 2016 Facebook had snatched the reins of news distribution from publishers. But a number of missteps on its part – chiefly the replacement of human curators of its trending stories by bots – created an environment in which highly partisan content got shared most often, no matter its source.
Infamously, a handful of Facebook savvy graduates in Georgia deliberately took advantage of this to create highly partisan, demonstrably fake stories that drove traffic to their sites from Facebook, purely to generate advertising revenue.
Publishers reporting on this started using ‘fake news’ as a term to describe the deliberate spreading of that misinformation in an attempt to game Facebook’s algorithms for traffic. Then, in November, a radical semantic shift occurred.
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, partly attributed to the anti-media platform on which he ran, searches for ‘fake news’ ballooned. Politicians in the US and UK found a handy catch-all term they could use to dismiss any negative coverage.
Even as the term entered the public consciousness with the meaning of ‘biased coverage’, publishers continued to use the term with its original definition of ‘deliberate misinformation’, increasing public awareness of the term itself, but not the nuances behind it.
Quite apart from the confusion that created, there’s evidence that the widespread use of the term is exacerbating a loss of trust in all news publishers, in part because of a quirk of digital publishing: News served through search and social looks largely the same, so it’s difficult for audiences to differentiate legitimate publishers from the rest of the news feed, and so cries of ‘fake news’ hit them as hard as the Facebook traffic-gamers.
So it’s time that publishers stop using the term ‘fake news’. Whatever its origin, it now gives the powerful an easy way to appeal to the public’s mistrust of the press, and to dismiss the publications meant to hold them to account.