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Let's talk about "fake news"

It's not that hard to separate the real from the fake if you slow down and pay attention.
It's not that hard to separate the real from the fake if you slow down and pay attention.

I’m very concerned about the problem of "fake news" and what it means for journalists, politicians and the media-consuming public.

But, really, this isn’t a new concern of mine. For many years, I’ve battled with the concept that the internet is always right.

Increasingly so, it isn’t. Actually, it’s wrong an awful lot.

In 1998, when Jeff Sherman and I launched OnMilwaukee.com, we chose a digital platform not just because we had a crystal ball for the future of media. We also couldn’t afford to print a magazine and city guide; at the time, it was much cheaper to build a website.

Of course, the opposite is now true for us. Our infrastructure, from servers to programmers to designers to bandwidth, is a tremendous expense for our company. At our scale, it would’ve been much cheaper to print OnMilwaukee on newsprint.

However, this was back in the Internet stone age – we built OnMilwaukee from the ground up, before WordPress and other templatized options made it easier to publish something professional-looking. In fact, even as we grow revenue and readership, people still often compare us both to one-person and 1,000-person operations, because the perception is that all online media is basically the same.

That would be like comparing a major daily newspaper to a photocopied neighborhood newsletter. They’re obviously nothing alike.

However, the problem of fake news takes advantage of this perception of homogeneity. At OnMilwaukee, we hire professional journalists and insist on integrity and quality. We don’t always get it right, and while some assume we have a secret politicized agenda, I can tell you honestly that we do the best we can to present well-written, legitimate lifestyle news. We fact check and follow the rules like we learned in journalism school.

Not everybody does.

Some news organizations find themselves too short-staffed to do the great work they used to (see: the Journal Sentinel). Others assume that "first" trumps "best" (see: Buzzfeed). Some extremely agenda-driven organizations masquerade as news media (see: Breitbart). Worse, some just make stuff up and put it on a site that looks kind of legit (see: Pizzagate).

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And here’s the problem: because of the way automated tools like Google and Facebook work, content doesn’t need to be real, sourced or professionally produced to get read and shared. People fall for it who shouldn’t, like the president-elect of the United States. While there’s a declining trust in mainstream media, there’s also an increasing propensity to share stuff that meets the consumer’s need to support a point of view. That’s confirmation bias and it’s pretty scary.

Real content curation can only be done by humans; an algorithm can and will get it wrong. If fake news is believed, it almost becomes real news, because it gets attention it shouldn’t. It can be monetizable, and the line between good and bad becomes blurred.

For example, Buzzfeed’s potentially libelous decision to release an unverified intelligence report on Donald Trump – that’s not fake news, but it might be completely untrue – and Buzzfeed standing to make a lot of money from it. Alternatively, Gawker ran with the Hulk Hogan sex tape; that was real, but it also got them sued out of business.

Consumers should know that page views don’t entirely equal revenue. It’s true that, generally speaking, the more traffic a news site gets, the more ads it can sell. But just being deluged with new traffic usually means we and others simply run remnant ads from Google Adwords. That tends to amount to peanuts. In fact, last January, when we covered "Making a Murderer" extensively, we actually lost money, because the bandwidth charges of a 10x spike in traffic outweighed the small revenue from all that unexpected and unsold new inventory.

However, fake news isn’t really about making money. It’s about advancing a cause. And sadly, it works. So what’s the answer?

On a technical side, Google and Facebook could easily flag content that’s fake news, since these "articles" never come from a reputable news site. Software solutions, though, aren’t enough. People need to stop believing everything they read. They must look at the Internet with a critical eye before clicking "share," "like" or "tweet this." That will require a culture change, and it might take some time.

So, expect the problem of fake news to get worse before it gets better. For publications like ours that pride ourselves on integrity and professionalism, and there are many others still out there, we’ll keep doing what we do.

In time, we can only hope that readers realize that we have to earn their trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Good journalism isn’t dead yet, but it has its back to the wall. It’s up to all of us to make sure it finds its rightful place to inform and educate a skeptical yet gullible consumer from whom we derive our paychecks. Real news is still out there; you just might have to look a little harder to find it.