2016: The Main­stream Me­dia Melted Down as Fake News Fes­tered

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

Tra­di­tional news out­lets have en­dured hard­ships for a while now. The rise of web pub­lish­ing and free con­tent started un­der­min­ing once beloved mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers decades ago now. And those left stand­ing are forced to ex­per­i­ment with new busi­ness mod­els and sus­tain the whims of the so­cial me­dia plat­forms that now hold news or­ga­ni­za­tions’ fate in their hands.

But this last year in Amer­i­can me­dia has been rougher than most. The elec­tion in­spired more than the usual amount of trib­al­ism on­line, and cit­i­zens’ trust in tra­di­tional me­dia fell to an all-time low: just 32 per­cent told Gallup they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the me­dia. This lack of trust formed the per­fect petri dish in which a plague of mis­in­for­ma­tion could fes­ter and bloom.

Along came the fake news sto­ries and hy­per-par­ti­san web­sites that were more than happy to pub­lish un­rec­og­niz­able hy­per­bole and all-out lies. The sto­ries didn’t have to be true— the pub­lic had al­ready lost faith in the fact-checkers—they just had to con­firm a cer­tain sub­set of peo­ple’s ex­ist­ing be­liefs. And if they did, peo­ple would share them. The more peo­ple shared them, the more Face­book would re­ward their pub­lish­ers by pri­or­i­tiz­ing them in users’ news feeds. By Au­gust, one Buz­zfeed anal­y­sis showed, fake news was in­creas­ingly out­per­form­ing the top sto­ries at the 19 ma­jor news out­lets.

It’s lit­tle won­der then, that in this brave new world, a can­di­date like Don­ald Trump could be­come pres­i­dent. While main­stream me­dia out­lets, factcheck­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, and Hil­lary Clin­ton’s team worked dili­gently to cor­rect his fre­quent fibs, Trump’s sup­port­ers were be­ing treated to a com­pletely dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive about the man—and the woman he was run­ning against—in their so­cial me­dia feeds.

But it wasn’t just th­ese new me­dia plat­forms—and yes, Face­book is one—that faced an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. It was hap­pen­ing on tele­vi­sion, too. From the mo­ment Trump took that fated es­ca­la­tor ride down to the lobby of Trump Tower to an­nounce his bid for the pres­i­dency in July 2015, cable news net­works like CNN and MSNBC kept their cam­eras locked on Trump. By Septem­ber, he had re­ceived 10 times as many men­tions on ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works as Dr. Ben Car­son, his near­est ri­val for time on-air. By the end of the race, Trump had been men­tioned on tele­vi­sion 1.26 mil­lion times, twice as many times as Hil­lary Clin­ton.

As CBS chair­man Les Moonves said at the time (and pre­sum­ably came to re­gret), Trump’s over­ex­po­sure “may not be good for Amer­ica, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Once it was clear Trump had be­come a se­ri­ous con­tender for the White House, th­ese same net­works tried in vain to fact-check him in the mo­ment, with many a vi­ral chy­ron at the bot­tom of the screen. “Trump: I Never Said Ja­pan Should Have Nukes (He Did),” read one. “Trump’s Son: Fa­ther Apol­o­gized to Khans (He Hasn’t).” A valiant ef­fort, but for those who hadn’t al­ready changed the chan­nel, it seems like fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion that the me­dia, as Trump of­ten al­leged, had it out for him.

The feel­ing of fu­til­ity didn’t end there. As me­dia dis­trust fes­tered, the man who would be­come pres­i­dent-elect was build­ing a me­dia out­let of his own. On Twit­ter, he is­sued ma­jor an­nounce­ments—and ma­jor disses—turn­ing his feed into both a com­peti­tor and a source for other re­porters. On Face­book, he ex­panded his fol­low­ing with an ag­gres­sive dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign that helped win him the White House. Who needed a web full of think pieces when vot­ers could get fre­quent and fer­vent up­dates on Trump di­rect from the source?

Which brings us to De­cem­ber. Trump is still tweet­ing and work­ing hard to fur­ther un­der­mine trust in the press. The press is si­mul­ta­ne­ously try­ing to de­cide when a tweet from the soonto-be pres­i­dent con­sti­tutes break­ing news and when it should be writ­ten off as a rant.

Mark Zucker­berg, mean­while, is fi­nally com­ing around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, Face­book has more in­flu­ence on peo­ple’s po­lit­i­cal be­liefs than he ini­tially be­lieved. Re­cently, he an­nounced hoax news sites will no longer be able to ad­ver­tise on Face­book and that the com­pany is rolling out ver­i­fi­ca­tion, re­port­ing, and de­tec­tion tools to make it eas­ier to spot false sto­ries.

It’s a start, but af­ter a truly gru­elling year for the me­dia in­dus­try, the hard­est part is yet to come. If 2016 was about dis­man­tling in­sti­tu­tions of ev­ery shape and size, 2017 will have to be about pick­ing up the pieces and fig­ur­ing out where to put them now.

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