Disinfo Wars: Fixing the Media’s Fake News Problem

A toxic focus on misinformation has taken over the media ecosystem. Fixing it will involve rebuilding a stronger and properly funded press.

A newspaper appears on a desktop in front of a series of devices that steadily display the spread of fake news from a smartphone to a laptop, a tablet, and a large monitor.
Adriana Bellet

Corporate consolidation, greed, and slapdash government policies were already creating an unsustainable news and media ecosystem when the internet began revolutionizing modern media decades ago. While the digital revolution offered limitless opportunities, it also spawned entirely new challenges that global leaders and companies were painfully unprepared for.

Today, Silicon Valley giants enjoy record ad revenues as modern news empires fail to pay journalists a living wage. Social media companies, thrust into the unenviable role of arbiters of truth, struggle to moderate user content at unprecedented scale. Bad actors, both foreign and domestic, leverage online platforms and policy failures to profit from inflammatory nonsense that’s designed to agitate and mislead rather than inform. Falsehoods see massive traction in a blink of an eye, while factual corrections are lucky to see a tiny fraction of the same attention.

Tech companies now face complicated questions about their role in protecting the public from malicious actors and disinformation — deliberately false reports that generate waves of inaccuracies — and whether or not they can and should be tasked with determining the truth. But many policy solutions bandied about as quick fixes are anything but.

One proposal that has received a lot of attention has been the bipartisan push to repeal or reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that limits platform liability for user-generated content and helps protect free expression on the internet. While it’s possible that Section 230 can be improved, experts like Mike Masnick, editor of Techdirt and founder of the Copia Institute, say that most recommendations — especially a full repeal — would do more harm than good.

“Dismantling, or even just modifying, Section 230 will not help solve disinformation, most of which is protected by the First Amendment, and it’s disappointing that so much energy has been wasted by those suggesting it is a solution,” Masnick said. “Nearly all reform proposals I’ve seen so far would only serve to either make it more difficult to deal with disinformation or, alternatively, make it more difficult for websites to host valuable and important speech around things like the Me Too movement or Black Lives Matter.”

Another commonly discussed “fix” for our growing disinformation problem is to have the government restore the Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 FCC policy that required news providers to equitably present different sides of controversial issues. But the rule, which the FCC repealed in 1987, only ever applied to broadcast networks, not to cable TV or the internet.

“I do not think there is a forcing regulatory solution that would not run afoul of the First Amendment,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Though the First Amendment is sometimes criticized as incompatible with disinformation solutions, that’s not always the case, especially given that private companies have every right under the Constitution to moderate content on their platforms however they see fit.

The First Amendment didn’t hamper Facebook’s ability to kick the president of the United States offline for spreading dangerous election conspiracies, a discussion that would have been incomprehensible a decade ago. Nor did it stop private hosting providers from refusing to do business with Parler for platforming racism and violence. 

At the same time, corporate content moderation efforts have been negligent, arbitrary, and inconsistent at best. Deplatforming and censorship raise questions about the very ethos of the open web, and today’s problems reflect a pervasive failure among tech companies to manage problematic material. 

While there’s no easy policy fix for America’s disinformation problem, Benkler noted that one legally viable solution might be to have federal regulators mandate greater transparency in advertising markets. 

“This will allow companies to know where advertising placement services place their ads, so as to protect their brands,” he said. “It will allow shareholders to know what programs the companies they own support commercially; and it will allow consumers to decide which brands they do, and which they do not, want to associate with.” 

A broken media

Experts say our inability to address online disinformation stems from our longstanding policy failures in traditional media. While “big tech” receives the lion’s share of scrutiny, meticulously constructed alternative realities aren’t exclusive to online platforms. Whether it’s OAN’s false claims that COVID-19 was secretly created in a North Carolina lab or Fox News inaccurately blaming renewable energy for causing the Texas power grid to fail, regulators are slowly realizing that the underlying problem is utterly systemic.

In a recent letter sent to the CEOs of 12 major cable and streaming television providers, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney accused the cable TV industry of doing nothing to limit the reach of such deceptions, particularly as the country struggles through an unprecedented public health crisis. 

“A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines,” the lawmakers wrote. “To our knowledge, the cable, satellite, and over-the-top companies that disseminate these media outlets to American viewers have done nothing in response to the misinformation aired by these outlets.”

The erosion of US journalism is particularly pronounced on the local level, where the death of traditional newspapers at the hands of the internet, combined with the rampant consolidation of local broadcasting, has created yawning gaps where meaningful local journalism doesn’t exist. What’s left in its place is meant to mimic the real thing, but it isn’t.

As traditional US journalism collapses upon itself, dubious middlemen have flourished, spreading a toxic slurry of falsehoods disguised to resemble serious news. The vacuum has created a perfect playground for partisan operatives who have built artificial online local news outlets to mislead the public.

The pandemic was particularly brutal on journalists, both online and off. Advertisers cut spending dramatically in 2020, resulting in the firing of more than 16,000 US journalists in just a year, topping the previous record of 14,265 lost journalism jobs in 2014. Even successful and semi-profitable new media ventures seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite reportedly having 700,000 paid subscribers and being on track for more than $35 million in revenue, Medium recently announced that it would be shuttering its professional journalism efforts and offering buyouts to editorial staff following an unsuccessful employee unionization effort

Meanwhile, billionaire-backed disinformation empires have generally faced no revenue or organizational shortfalls.

“The business of news media right now is pretty bleak — but that’s if you look at it as a business, as something you want to generate profit from,” said Parker Molloy, editor at large for Media Matters for America. 

“For years and years, people on the right have been dumping millions upon millions of dollars into keeping hyper-partisan right-wing media companies up and running,” she added. “Conservative billionaires who finance certain right-wing outlets online likely view this as more of an ideological investment that provides its returns in the form of a shifted electorate rather than a direct financial return.”

The onus then shifts to underfunded activists and struggling reporters to debunk the falsehoods being fed to Americans on an industrial scale by everyone from DC-based political operatives and foreign governments to opportunistic teenagers in Macedonia. It’s an uphill climb, made abundantly evident by the recent plague of pandemic and election fraud conspiracies

“The time and energy it takes to debunk these things, to pull back the curtain on misinformation, is… a lot,” Molloy remarked. “And a lot of the time it feels like a game of Whac-A-Mole, or like you’re cutting off the head of a disinformation hydra only to see two more take its place.”

An array of bad actors exploit this dysfunction, creating a profitable, toxic symbiosis that is highly resistant to being dismantled or reformed.

One potential approach to disrupting the symbiotic disinfo feedback loop between television and online outlets would be for regulators to mandate that cable providers sell cable channels a la carte, instead of forcing subscribers to buy channel bundles that include purveyors of false news. 

“You’d kill those stations in a heartbeat if they didn’t get bundled in every cable package,” said Christopher Terry, assistant professor of media law at the University of Minnesota. “All of those outlets thrive in the delivery to the audience they get by being included in every package, but in an a la carte cable package, only a handful of the true believer crowd would be willing to pay extra for them.”

“Imagine if they had to survive in an actual market-based scenario where the number of viewers they could have was limited by the people who would pay to have access to that specific content,” he added. “You’d cut them off at the knees and use their own rhetoric to do so while making cable companies more accountable to the local customer base.”

It’s an idea embraced by Molloy and Media Matters, whose Unfox My Cable Box campaign takes aim at the practice of forcing American consumers to pay for television channels they neither want nor watch, driving conspiracists back to the fringes. But while such a solution might help clean up cable and streaming TV, ad-based online news is another matter altogether.

Creative funding

With policy options constrained by the First Amendment, experts suggest that the most sensible path forward and out of the US journalism disinformation logjam involves building a stronger, creatively funded media.

“Abetting an insurrection might be an opening to argue for new public interest obligations for the long term to prevent this from happening again,” said Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania. “Meanwhile, I will always come down on the structural argument that building up a robust public media system that provides a steady supply of reliable journalism to all Americans must be part of the solution.” 

A decade ago, the FTC warned in a policy paper that journalism would need to be reimagined for the digital era with a focus on developing creative new funding sources beyond traditional advertising. But while there have been scattered and modest gains in the space, including the recent well-hyped reinvention of the newsletter, real progress and adaptation has been minimal.

The ad-based model encourages journalism that critics say goes out of its way to pull punches in an attempt to avoid upsetting advertisers. This in turn results in timid coverage that gives too much weight to false claims or conspiracy in a bid for false symmetry, a phenomenon that Columbia professor Jay Rosen has dubbed the “view from nowhere.”

“A profit-driven, oligopoly-dominated, lightly-regulated media system is going to be great for a handful of corporations, and generally bad for democracy,” Pickard said.

To fix this, consumer groups have advocated for taxing targeted ads to fund journalism. Others have suggested using regulatory fines or a tax on wireless service to adequately fund the press.

Australia recently passed a law forcing Google and Facebook to pay some news outlets for linking to their content, a move that World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee argued “could make the web unworkable around the world.” The law has also been pilloried by critics and satirists for being “a form of ransomware” and for doing more to prop up and protect Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire than to build a sustainable and equitable press.

In the US, a slightly less aggressive bill has been re-introduced that would give news outlets greater collective leverage over negotiating payment and distribution terms as they attempt to extract a slice of ballooning Facebook and Google ad revenues. Though here too consumer groups say the bill doesn’t truly address the more deeply-rooted problems in US journalism.

Whatever an overarching solution winds up looking like, experts say they welcome a creative funding conversation that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

“I think the folks that are pushing for news reporting to become the thing of nonprofits funded by our taxes really have the right idea,” remarked Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I’ve often seen cable news just fail to educate people because it needs to gather eyeballs to run commercials.”

The effects of our media failures are measurable. As budget cuts and consolidation eliminate local news outfits, researchers have documented how this has directly resulted in Americans growing less informed and more divided. As local news is replaced by conspiracy, disinformation, and facts-optional partisan infotainment, the shift can even influence election outcomes.

“People seem to get suckered because of information scarcity and a lack of local, community-based news operations,” Falcon said. “The internet will always be what it is, but the OANs only work when someone doesn’t find a trustworthy alternative source.”

Convincing traditional and new media empires to abandon profitable trolling and disinformation isn’t something that will happen on its own. It requires coherent federal leadership that by any measure is largely nonexistent. And there remains no such organizational apathy or budget shortfalls for those trafficking in hyperbole and hate. Scholars like Pickard say the existing journalism funding model has also long rewarded inflammatory clickbait, punishing more nuanced explorations of essential issues of the day. An array of bad actors exploit this dysfunction, creating a profitable, toxic symbiosis that is highly resistant to being dismantled or reformed.

While there’s no silver bullet for this long-standing issue, scattered solutions appear to hold potential. But realizing their promise will require coherent federal leadership, a creative awakening in the way we think about and fund journalism, and a deeper understanding of the origins of the problem.

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A newspaper appears on a desktop in front of a series of devices that steadily display the spread of fake news from a smartphone to a laptop, a tablet, and a large monitor.

Artwork By

Adriana Bellet

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