Friday, June 3, 2016

What's a fake news site?

What’s a fake news source? 

This question is important especially in the aftermath of the 2016 elections in the Philippines. What I'll discuss is a very simplistic view, just enough to frame an answer. It will not be sufficient in many ways and is just a tiny tip of the prod-user/prosumer iceberg. 

To me, a fake news site or source is a website or Facebook page -- social media in general -- that is not backed by a real news organization. Here's a simplistic and minimalist checklist, based on a traditional view of media (because this will help us form a simple definition of "fake media source"):
  1. A genuine news organization will have a trained team. 
  2. That team adheres to a vetting process. Trained writers and editors verify the info they receive from interviewees and sources. 
  3. A standard practice for verifying investigative pieces is to cite sources and cross-validate a story using a second, independent source. 
Again, that list is the bare essentials. So, halimbawa -- Get Real Philippines. Two of its biggest claims are that Marcos was the greatest president and that the youth are realizing this. 

Do they cite sources on this? Their claim that the economy was best during Marcos’s time has been debunked by so many independent sources -- by economists, historians, not just from the Philippines but abroad. 

Back to Get Real. Where’s the proof that Marcos was greatest? Get Real's claim about the youth needs statistical support. Nasaan? How do they define "a lot of youth"? Is it 80%? 51% Maybe they interviewed Bongbong Marcos. Or maybe the are citing sources controlled by Marcos in Martial Law, which is like USSR quoting Pravda to talk about their "glory" days. 

When researcher and professor Leloy Claudio asked Get Real operators to cite a peer-reviewed source, here was its response: 
"What I read in my own time is my business. What I publish via  is all u got.” 
In short, benign0 is saying, “Hey, I can’t cite sources because I made it all up." Ergo, fake, unsubstantiated claims. 

Get Real’s response automatically cannot satisfy checklist item 3: citing and using a reputable source to cross-validate a claim. Since they failed on item 3, they most probably do not have a trained team (Item 1) that adheres to a vetting process (Item 2). No reputable news organization will fail this checklist. Otherwise they could get sued and lose credibility. 

Items 1 and 2 on our checklist speak about the credibility of a news organization, which we could also refer to as the gatekeeper function. You have a structure (the team) and a filtering function to sort out what’s true and what’s unfounded (vetting system). 

Let me emphasize again the importance of a trained team in a well-oiled organization. Trained -- because being a reporter and editor is not a joke. In the age of free blogs and Facebook, people think it’s easy to publish a story. That's a disadvantage of the social media explosion. People most of the time cannot distinguish opinion from evidence-based journalism. It's alarming how Filipinos are now using this ignorance to further erode media -- a freedom we won back after we kicked out Marcos. Andrew Keen warned about the rise of amateurs in blogging. I think he was worried about the erosion of the gatekeeper function of media. If you erode this, you erode an important component of the check and balances in society. Again, that's for a different story.

Let's go back to fake news sources. The second part of a credible news source is you have to have a trained team. In a blog, you write something and that’s it. In a credible news organization, you write something, cross-check the story, and submit to the editor. Your editor makes sure the sources are cited and credible, and the claims are backed by research. If you could do all these functions by yourself, it’s still not enough — you may have personal biases coming out. So you still need at least one other person — an editor — to make sure it’s a fair and balanced reportage. 

Back to identity. Name an established news organization now and we know its owners: ABS-CBN, TV5, Inquirer, GMA, Rappler. Even if you did not know them offhand, you could do a bit of digging to find out. The information is available. Knowing the owners helps us understand the limits of the organization and the agenda that we should expect from the business behind the news organization. (Note that I am not even saying that a real news organization should be free from bias. News objectivity has long been debunked even in journ schools. What’s really important is provenance and veracity of the stories you are publishing. But that’s another story.)

When Amazon owner Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, his purchase was highly publicized and Bezos took lots of effort to reassure the public and Washington Post staff that he will not intervene with the current editorial policy. This helped the paper maintain its credibility to its readers. 

Now let's ask: who is behind Get Real? It’s pretty hard to find out. The “About Us” page, and I urge you to read it (for one, it uses a blog post from Manolo Quezon as endorsement) -- the "About Us" page says it was founded by benign0 — no real name. The Twitter account’s profile picture is a blurry image of someone who looks like Jimi Hendrix. Some say he came out as some guy from Australia (the domain name is registered to someone in Arizona, USA). But that information is not in its About Us page.  

Anonymity is good if you’re a fictionalist, but not if you claim to be a real source of news. That’s just irresponsibility.

So okay, let's be kind to Get Real and not call them a fake site, despite their name. At best, they have user contributed opinions, managed by an anonymous entity hiding behind a username.

Postscript. Further pursuits:

Again, this is a simplistic view. There are nuances in between that are still being debated by experts (of which I am not one).

  • For example, some will argue that the owners of the media organizations I named above represent the oligarchy. I agree with that view, but that is for another story.
  • Vulnerability of the model I described: in the US, the Koch brothers set up a seemingly legit news agency which started feeding national news releases that were clearly written to protect the interests of their business empire. These news releases eventually found their way in legitimate publications and broadcasting companies. 
  • In the early days of blogging and Wikipedia, news organizations imposed policies not to cite blogs or Wikipedia. As reporters started put up their own blogs, the corporate policies later included some guidelines for their reporters. What emerged was that all official, verifiable information got published, while blogs could contain longer interview transcripts and supplemental material.  
  • Which brings us to a gray area: If a bunch of my friends who used to work for mainstream media decided to put a team blog that also aggregated news from legitimate news sources, are we a genuine news source? Huffington Post started as a commentary blog and news aggregator but seems to be emerging as a recognized news source. 

What to do when you've got a virtual scrum team

Scrum and Agile are suddenly popular in Asia, and because a lot of companies take on outsourced projects, they usually have virtual teams, w...