Comment: Fraudulent news undermines democracy

At first, it seemed too ridiculous and farcical to worry about, those so-called “reports” during the U.S. election that screamed Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump and that Hillary Clinton had dementia.

But many people said they believed such outright lies. And now we find through reliable sources that a sophisticated Russian campaign of propaganda — a.k.a. “fake news” — did create and disseminate false stories about Clinton, with the goal of helping to elect Trump.

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Who knows if this Russian interference made a difference or whether other creators of claptrap circulating on the Internet caused Americans to vote for Trump or stay home? Either way, the danger is obvious: Acting on misinformation ultimately undermines democracy.

Phoney-story pushers are legion and motivated. According to reputable news organizations, for instance, young people in a Macedonian town also ran pro-Trump sites full of fake news, likely viewed by millions, generating income by misinforming voters. (They made money from ads on the site, provided by the ad technologies of Google and Facebook. The more “shares,” the more ads are seen, the more money is made.) This happened after Facebook had fired editors who were responsible for rooting out fake news from its trending topic area.

This country is not immune, either. A Canadian site, Hotglobalnews.com, creates totally imaginary articles about Justin Trudeau. It’s run by two teens who have struck fake-news gold with the popular PM.

Fake news might be confused with sites that are merely satirical, such as The Onion, which cleverly mocks news. CBC Radio’s This Is That also parodies real stories, as does The Beaverton online. These sites are meant to entertain, not hoodwink.

But in the fast-clicking world of the Internet, people are willing to lie to us for money because we don’t pay attention to the news source. Clickbait sites might have a grain of truth in them, but their producers don’t care if we read the article: All they need is for us to be intrigued enough by the outrageous headline so that we click and share without looking at the content. The producers profit by selling our attention to advertisers.

The good news about fake news? People are catching on and want it to stop. We want to know that the information we rely on to make decisions in our democracies is well-researched, balanced and trustworthy. The New York Times added 41,000 new digital and print subscribers in the week after the election, the biggest one-week subscription increase in five years. ProPublica (a non-profit group that does investigative journalism), the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the Guardian have all seen subscriptions go up post-election.

Both Google and Facebook say they will block ad revenue to fake news sites, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who previously pooh-poohed the impact of false news on the election, now says Facebook will make it easier to report false content and help third-party fact-checkers.

You and I might not agree with every article we see in a newspaper such as the Times Colonist, but we can be grateful that the people who put it together have the journalistic skills to check information and print what’s accurate and to fix it when they err. They follow a code of ethics that includes telling the truth.

We trust our daily paper to give us verifiable information so that we have a common basis for understanding our community. We can have civil conversations about our differences and act on agreed-upon facts.

If we’re drowning in falsehoods about the economy, our health (those anti-vaccine sites just won’t give up), the environment and politicians, how can we move forward as a society?

Let’s support real journalism with subscriptions and donations; as with everything else, you get what you pay for. When you are online, read before you repost and check the source. It takes a few seconds more, but since you’re already spending time online, why not spend it wisely?

And stop telling me how awful “the media” are. Don’t blame trustworthy outlets for the pranks and disinformation of non-journalists. If you think not having reporters is a good idea, try living in a state run by someone who hates journalists. There’s about to be one right next door.

Vivian Smith is the 2016-17 Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lecturer in the department of writing at the University of Victoria. She is the author of Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists love — and Leave — Their Newspaper Careers, published by University of Toronto Press.

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