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The scourge of fake news, its spread on social media platforms and its impact on real-world politics, were in focus on a panel Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The debate — which included New York Times managing editor Joseph Kahn, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Anna Belkina, deputy editor-in-chief at Russia’s state-backed English-language news channel RT — addressed the extent of the problem and how best to deal with the phenomenon of falsehoods masquerading as fact in global media coverage.
The panel, which also included Pakistani politician Bhutto Zardari, agreed that the inflationary use of the “fake news” moniker to refer to everything from outright falsehoods to government propaganda, political spin or just dissenting opinion —as illustrated by President Donald Trump’s “Fake News Awards” — has clouded the issue.
“I think the term is absolutely toxic,” said Belkina of RT, a network that’s often been accused of being a fake news peddler.
Surprisingly, the group also largely agreed that more real news was the best way to combat the fake news phenomenon. Kahn rejected top-down regulatory approaches, as seen with recent laws to combat fake news and hate speech online in Germany and France.
“The Russian foreign ministry has a stamp, a big red stamp, that they put on pieces of news they consider fake. Trump has his fake news awards. These are not the people we in the broader community should be looking to to tell us what’s accurate and what’s not accurate in the news media. I think that is a very slippery slope to authoritarianism,” Kahn said. “I have very little to no faith in government regulation as a way of ferreting out fake news. The only thing that is going to work with regards to fake news is more quality news, more attention to quality news. Better traction for quality news on online platforms.”
Belkina agreed: “I think the solution is diversity of opinions, a diversity of stories and a diversity of points of view when reflected in credible reporting.”
Wales mentioned the citizen journalism website Wikitribune, which uses a combination of paid and citizen journalists to source the truth in its stories, as the kind of grass-roots venture that could help in fighting fake news online. Strong regulation, he agreed, “is an incredibly dangerous idea…. I think what we need is a robust ecosystem. You need the independence of journalists to speak truth to power but also to ferret out fake news.”
The group also largely rejected calls to treat online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as if they were publisher, making the tech companies responsible for the content shared on their services. Kahn said there is no practical way Facebook could operate like a publisher: “they would have to hire every person in the world to assure the quality of information on the platform,” he quipped. Kahn pointed to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that Facebook was overhauling its News Feed to place a greater emphasis on posts from friends and family and less on news reports, as a sign the company wanted to be seen as a social media platform, not a news publisher.
Wales suggested the biggest problem was the news business model in the online world, where clicks drive advertising dollars, encouraging partisan, sensationalist or even entirely fake “news” reports. He said the recent increase in paid subscriptions for quality publications, like the New York Times, was a positive sign.
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