I was standing in the cold on the sidewalk along Forty Second Street one morning last October when I realised that journalism was losing the war against disinformation. I was there as part of an experiment to test the power of fake news – that is, truly fake news, not as Donald Trump defines it but the kind that misreports and misinforms. Would people respond differently to falsehoods if they were taken off the internet and put in front of them, in print, on a newsstand in Manhattan? Would passersby notice, or even care?
That morning, a few of us from the Columbia Journalism Review, along with advertising partners from TBWA\Chiat\Day, had taken over a newsstand. We had left the sodas and the snacks and the lottery tickets untouched, but replaced all the newspapers and magazines with fake ones, similar in design to their real-world counterparts but absurd in their content: “Texas now recognised as Mexican state,” read the cover line for a magazine designed to look like New York. “Painkillers in our water supply,” headlined a piece in what resembled The Economist. “Toddler fight club,” blared a tabloid paper, above a photograph of two children who appeared to be in a brawl.
Then we waited for customers. I stayed off to the side, shivering; I’d worn the wrong coat. As the hours passed, hundreds of people walked by. A couple dozen stopped to gawk. My colleagues and I did our best to engage them in conversation, asking for their opinions about what they saw.
Visitors’ answers largely fell into two categories: one group noticed the headlines, recognised they were odd, but had so little faith in journalism that they shrugged off the misinformation and moved on. The other group read the headlines but didn’t register them as unusual, so accustomed were they to specious stories as part of their regular news diets. From where I stood, the exercise was demoralising: What did this say about news consumers? About news producers? Only a handful of people were disturbed by the lies on display.
That was in 2018. If anything, the problem of disinformation has only grown worse since our sidewalk experiment. Falsehoods propagated on social media have become increasingly sophisticated, intentional deception from the White House and elsewhere is more widespread, and journalism’s ability to counter bad information with legitimate reporting seems to be getting more limited by the day. Those trends will accelerate as we head into the 2020 presidential election, a contest that will be about a lot of things, no doubt including how and whether the traditional arsenal of journalism – accuracy, fairness, dedicated observation – is a match for the army of nonsense assembled against it.
As I sit here in the fall of 2019, in the age of Trump and Facebook trolls and partisan propaganda, it looks to me like disinformation is winning.
Until recently, those of us in the news business had a superpower that gave us our strength. It was, in its most grandiose sense, the truth. Facts, we believed, could help us bring power to account, justice to the marginalised. The truth carried weight; facts spoke for themselves and could not be dismissed.
But then came the internet and social media and a surge of information, factual and nonsensical. In this climate, journalism has not only had a hard time standing out against the flotsam, it has also been waterlogged by everything floating around it. Emily Bell, writing for this issue about the limitations of fact-checking programmes, says that the advent of Facebook’s “share” button, in 2006, helped create a slipstream of misinformation. “The number of unfounded claims took off,” Bell writes, and the situation deteriorated after 2012, when “share” went mobile. “By the start of the 2016 presidential race,” Bell continues, “coordinated propaganda campaigns, legitimate political advertising, and even for-profit troll farms were working their way through the opaque, algorithmically driven social media ecosystem.”
As the information ecosystem became more and more toxic, facts stopped working as disinfectants. Even worse, what had been their cleansing power – their ability to neutralise bad information – turned against them, like a rogue pathogen in a science fiction movie. Whitney Phillips, a scholar of online communication at Syracuse University, has observed how true statements have been used to expand the reach of untruths: “Shining a light on what’s false can even, counterintuitively, make things worse by spreading falsehoods to more people,” she explains in her piece for the magazine, “making those falsehoods seem more plausible to certain audiences, and generally ensuring that the story is more potent after the debunk than before.”
She goes on to argue that journalists, and everyone, “must reexamine our most fundamental assumptions about how false and misleading information spreads and about the role we all play in spreading it.” There is a continued, and hardening, willingness of millions of Americans to believe what is clearly false, and to disbelieve what is obviously true. That the New York Times, for instance, is demonstrably not “fake” makes no difference to the people who want to believe otherwise; if anything, the sharper that news outlets like the Times – and the Washington Post and ProPublica and others – become in their reporting, the more damning their critiques of powerful figures, the less likely some readers are to believe them, and the more open everyone is to agents of manipulation.
You can see the frustrations of journalism as it struggles through this moment. News organisations have grown more opinionated and partisan. The Times, after reporting again and again that Trump indulges in mistruths, finally made a turn in 2016 and called them lies and, later, identified the president as a liar. On CNN and MSNBC, sermonising is a staple opener to primetime news programmes, so angry are people like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell and Don Lemon about the lack of consequences from the reporting that preceded them earlier in the day. We have, all of us, redirected some of our rage to the social platforms that played a central role in serving up misinformation, complaining about Facebook’s infuriating refusal to spend any of its billions to tackle the problem, or Twitter’s willingness to turn over to the worst purveyors of online hate. The result, on our TV newscasts and daily papers and Twitter feeds, is a red-faced, vein-popping scream.
I understand the impulse. I felt it when I hovered by the CJR newsstand and watched as New Yorkers, my neighbours, shrugged at fake news. I feel it every time I watch a Trump rally, in which he discredits facts and the people who find them, or Fox News, which cynically pretends to live in the world of facts when it perpetually wallows in anything but. Journalists are demoralised and exasperated. Of course, I could have screamed right there on Forty Second Street, or grabbed people by the shoulders in the hope of jolting them to attention.
But our screaming, our hectoring, isn’t working. Some outlets may get a boost to their bottom line, in the form of higher subscription numbers, but they aren’t solving the disinformation problem. For that, we need to do something more fundamental. We need, for the moment, to put down our notebooks and rethink how we tell stories.
No one I know got into journalism because they wanted to be a human encyclopedia, spewing facts. They got into it because they wanted to tell stories about important things – and they wanted those stories to change the way people live. Facts may be an important part of that effort, but they are in the service of something more profound.
Facts alone, we know, are not the essence of what we do. If we’re to have any hope of transcending disinformation’s dark cloud, we must, all of us, take responsibility for understanding the broader narrative. Depending on facts alone isn’t fair to the facts. As journalists, we need to consider the ecosystem in which our stories live, to acknowledge the falsehoods that surround our facts, to speak to the biases that pollute our coverage, and to be aware of the baggage that we ourselves bring to a story.
We also need to consider what role we can play in improving the ecosystem. In his piece for the magazine, Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, lays out what a better internet, one that serves the public interest in general and journalism in particular, might look like. “Technology should act in the service of humanity, not as an existential threat to it,” he writes. Engagement, he continues, is currently measured in terms of business interests – time and clicks on a website – which means that a company hosting a story “has a disincentive to challenge users with difficult or uncomfortable information”. People share what they like, not what they need to hear, much less what disturbs their thinking. Zuckerman wonders: “Can we imagine a social network designed in a different way: to encourage the sharing of mutual understanding rather than misinformation?”
We have been inching forward in this debate without quite knowing what it’s about. It manifests in the discussion that now arises whenever CNN airs the absurd commentary offered by a Trump acolyte like Kellyanne Conway, whose track record of disinformation is long and documented. It is now prompting an argument about whether Trump himself, with his own disinformation baggage, should be given free rein to the airwaves of live television, or to millions of followers on Twitter. Social platforms, designed to entice people to share, have become the environment for contagion. But they don’t have to be that way.
For journalism to confront this problem asks a lot of its business model, now in bottomline crisis. More context, more connection, and more time mean more people, more experience, more money. But maybe fewer, deeper stories is where we should all be headed. It’s something we have been experimenting with at CJR. We have no choice but to try. We are dangerously close to a situation in which facts no longer function as a journalistic response. Then what?
This article first appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.