Eli C. Hiller
How can Canadians employ design-based strategies to tackle the scourge of fake news?
That was the crux of the Toronto Action Design workshop on March 7 with special guest Craig Silverman, media editor at BuzzFeed News and the world’s foremost expert on the fake news that dominated journalistic discourse around the U.S. election.
People from all kinds of backgrounds attended, including product designers, user experience specialists and a children’s animation development exec. The fake news challenge had obviously been on their minds for months.
Toronto Action Design is part of the multi-city Action Design Network, and the collective includes researchers, designers, product managers and entrepreneurs. They’re eager to learn about behavioural research and its practical applications for public policy and consumer products.
Silverman admitted there is no clear answer on how to battle fake news propagators. As long as it remains financially lucrative, he explains, fake news will continue to be more attractive than founding a truthful news site.
Typical of Facebook and Twitter feeds that surfaced during the U.S. election campaign were head-spinning headlines like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump For President, Releases Statement,” “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets To Africa & Mexico For Those Who Wanna Leave America” and “FBI Director Comey Just Put A Trump Sign On His Front Lawn.”
As he often does in his presentations, Silverman outlined the main types of content creators who post these stories: hoaxers who just do it for the lulz; unintentional propagators who unknowingly spread a Photoshopped image or doctored video; malicious propagators who intentionally try to get phony stories to go viral on social media, sometimes motivated by political ideology. Then there are the money grubbers like the Macedonian teens who earned $16,000 off two pro-Trump sites between August and November 2016.
“And when articles comes out debunking these fake news stories, they never gain as much traction or page-views as the original fake article,” Silverman noted.
So far he’s identified 115 fake news sites currently in operation. As expected, they raked in serious Google ads and other ad network money during the campaign, but some of that revenue is drying up since Trump won the U.S. presidency.
Making these sites is attractive “because there’s a low barrier to entry. Anyone can start a fake news site, and attention harvesting is all about playing to people’s emotions, whether fear or anger.”
Silverman said the problem isn’t as troubling in Canada as in the U.S. because its larger population and hyper-partisan news media landscape make fake news more lucrative there. But he’s aware of two St. Catharines teens who’ve spread fake viral stories mixing Justin Trudeau and marijuana.
Before the floor was opened to discussion, Silverman outlined several best practices for those aiming to debunk fake news. One was “Debunk the idea, not the person,” another “Choose the right sources.” By underscoring the credibility of trusted sources, a critical news reader can thoughtfully engage with fake-news sharers and make them aware of how damaging their stories can be.
When event host Sarah Lazarovic (a former NOW contributor) asked participants to offer ideas on how to apply design and UX to fighting fake news, several ideas led to interesting discussion.
One strategy riffed off the website NoOffenseOrAnything.com, which lets people send anonymous emails to others who have bad BO or manners. What if that site offered an offshoot service to let spreaders of fake news know they’ve been duped by a couple of kids in Macedonia?
Another looked at how the blue check mark system employed by Twitter for verified accounts. If credible news sources had that check mark to signify its content could be trusted, fake news would have a tougher time spreading across social networks.
One suggestion was a browser plug-in that could alert desktop users to potentially fake stories, but Silverman cautioned that the right people would have to install it. Would right-leaning readers install a plug-in that told them their favourite pro-Trump news story was erroneous?
Several attendees wanted to see Facebook and Twitter take more action to stop nefarious publishers, but Silverman cautioned that giving these platforms more power could be a slippery slope.
“Do we really want them to tell us what to see, what we shouldn’t see?” he asked. There are already some checks and balances, though: Facebook is adding a “disputed” tag to some fake news stories, and Google is stripping its ad network from sites reportedly known for spreading phony headlines.
A conversation followed on changing the behaviour of those who share fake news – one of the hardest challenges, according to Silverman.
“People believe what they want to believe,” he said, whether they’re on the far right or far left. The pro-Trumpers will be skeptical of anything that forces them to rethink the news stories they enjoy spreading to friends and family. As widely noted, media distrust in the U.S. is at an all-time high.
A final, seemingly practical suggestion may be wishful thinking: if news junkies on Twitter or Facebook would just take a few seconds to rethink hitting that “Share” or “Retweet” button, maybe they’d view the article they’re reading with a more critical eye. Maybe.