If you’re older than about 35 you may remember the days when people got their news from one paper, one television news show and perhaps one radio station. The media would broadly stick to the facts, and any egregious lies would be exposed by the other media or pursued through the libel courts.
Most of these old media still exist, but the terrain bears no comparison of that of even five years ago. The internet, but more particularly Facebook, has changed everything.
Over half of people now use social media to get news, with Facebook by far the most important social network. One in ten (12%) says it is their main source of news, rising to 28 percent among 18- 24 year olds, according to a report last year by the Reuters Institute of Oxford University.
In a sense, Facebook has liberated the news business from the century-long stranglehold of a few behemoths. To start a news business you once needed dozens of inky-handed men on unionised contracts to get the news published and complex supply chains to get your news through people’s doors before they had poured their All Bran. Today the internet has replaced the ink, and Facebook has replaced the paperboy.
This has opened up the market to thousands of new media, providing a mind-expanding smörgåsbord of options. If you tire of the Times or British news, you can get your news with a Brussels focus, courtesy of Politico. If you think the Guardian is too left-wing, you’re just a click away from the Telegraph. If you want insights into places like Germany, France and Sweden, the publication I co-founded, The Local, will give you that in plain old English. Instead of relying on one source, you can consult thousands.
But these possibilities have also opened up for much less reputable players, whose aim is to spread hyper-partisan and downright false news.
According to BuzzFeed, a single small town in Macedonia is home to at least 140 US politics websites. In the run-up to the US election, they published pro-Trump content with sensationalist headlines such as ‘Pope forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary’ and ‘Proof emerges that Obama was born in Kenya’. These themes were bound to gain favour from many Republican voters – the problem was that they were completely and demonstrably untrue. The articles themselves were often copied and pasted from hyper-partisan American blogs.
These Macedonian sites gain millions of clicks by getting stories to be shared on Facebook by Trump, and placing ads from Google which pay out small amounts every time they are displayed.
Worryingly, Facebook users seem not to worry too much where their news comes from – and this is not just a US phenomenon. According to the Reuters Institute, people in the UK and Canada reading news via Facebook only notice which brand they’re reading about half the time.
Sweden is also a big target of fake news. This entered the spotlight after Donald Trump’s bizarre claim about some unspecified sinister event that happened ‘last night in Sweden’, but has been a problem for far longer:
The far-right US site Breitbart has published 80 stories about Sweden over the past six months, almost all of them hurling lurid and exaggerated allegations about migrants raping Swedish women or society falling apart. ‘Wear a headscarf or be raped, Swedish women warned,’ was a typical example. InfoWars, a fake news site run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and Russia propaganda channel Russia Today also run endless stories along similar lines.
These publications are joined by oncerespectable British newspapers, particularly the Daily Express, which has run exaggerated or unsubstantiated stories about Sweden including ‘SWEDEN CRUMBLING: Demands for military intervention as thugs turns Malmö into ‘no-go zone’ and ‘‘Jihad! Jihad!’ Migrant gang turns Swedish city into war zone’. The disgraced British far-right blogger Milos Yiannopoulos ran a demonstrably untrue story, that nevertheless was widely circulated, in which he claimed that Sweden had ‘banned’ Christmas lights. If you visited Sweden during the festive period, it didn’t take long to expose his lies – but most readers were in the US and were harder to disabuse.
Where does this leave business? The first thing to realise is that the rise of fake and hyper-partisan news threatens the trust between individuals, and that between citizens and institutions, than underpin democratic societies.
The British papers referring to judges as ‘Enemies of the People’ was also, while not fake news, certainly hyper-partisan in a way that called into question the foundations on which our democratic societies are built. The courts are always open to criticism by a free press, but the tone of this attack has made many lawyers, politicians and commentators worried.
Ultimately, undermining trust in a society undermines the rule of law – the thing that ensures contracts are honoured and individuals and companies can get a fair hearing in court.
Yet these fake and highly biased news sites are often being indirectly funded by large respectable companies, through programmatic advertising – that is to say, advertising that is bought through intermediaries such as Google, often without the direct involvement or knowledge of the advertiser.
A series of campaigns in the US, the UK and beyond have led to many brands ditching disreputable sites, particularly Breitbart. Kellogg’s, Nordstrom’s department stories in the US and Scandic Hotels in Sweden have all said they won’t allow their ads to appear on Breitbart. Even the Daily Mail has found itself at the end of a campaign in the UK, with The Body Shop among the companies withdrawing advertising from the paper. Many more will need to drop the sites to make a dent in their profits, however – producing fake news is for obvious reasons much cheaper than producing the real thing.
Facebook itself has also come in for criticism for allowing so much fake news to spread through its pages. It changed its procedures in January to stop personalised stories appearing for each user, something it said would help stem the tide of fake news, though it remains to be seen whether this will placate campaigners.
Meanwhile, readers and advertisers are faced with a challenge: if they don’t like the way that media has developed, will they be persuaded to pay to help honest media survive and challenge the lies? In 2017, the battle for the future of news is entering a crucial new phase.