Beware the Rabbit Hole: To stop misinformation from spreading, journalists shouldn't rely only on social media.

Author:Tornoe, Rob
Position:Digital publishing

By this point, the phrase "fake news" has become as ubiquitous in newsrooms as "election night pizza."

It's a term that conjures up images of bad actors in foreign governments diligently working to undermine our democracy, or cynical profiteers looking to take advantage of a general lack of sophistication on social media to make a quick buck.

But sometimes, we're the ones creating the fake news.

Maiy Kulundu, a reporter on Agence France-Presse's fact check desk, recently wrote an eye-opening story about Kenya's plans to introduce the death penalty for convicted wildlife poachers. As it turns out, the stoiy was completely false, but that didn't stop it from easily spreading to a large number of legitimate news websites, with many racking up more than 100,000 shares each.

I won't name them here, but some pretty hefty newspapers and online publishers wrote versions of the story, which Kulundu found were ultimately sourced to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Unfortunately, most simply didn't bother attempting to seek confirmation from anyone in Kenya's government, choosing instead to source another outlet's report, which sourced a different outlet's report ... and down the rabbit hole we went.

Katy Lee, a colleague of Kulundu's on the fact check desk, wrote in a Twitter thread she thought the story revealed how funding cuts at major newsrooms matched with the demands of online publishing can be as much a source of misinformation as troll farms in Russia.

"Why did sites run the story without checking it? Some (because) they want content that gets clicks and don't give a rat's arse about standards," Lee wrote. "Others because they no longer have staff with the time to check these things with Kenyan authorities, or the judgment to consider it necessary."

"Is it the end of the world if tens of thousands of people wrongly think Kenya is introducing the death penalty for poachers? Maybe not. But this kind of sloppy journalism is now everywhere, because content = clicks = money," Lee added.

Reminding reporters to follow the basic rules of journalism seems a bit basic for a 2019 column on digital journalism, but unfortunately that's where we find ourselves. The demands for faster publishing continue to smack head-on with the shrinking size of newsrooms across the globe, creating an ecosystem that invariably leads to shortcuts and errors.

Journalists can't do much to stop bad actors from cynically exploiting social media networks unwilling or unable to...

To continue reading