In June, a story with a screaming headline, “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump”, set cyberspace abuzz. The fact that the story was broken by an obscure website called WTOE 5 hardly mattered. By the time it was debunked as a bogus satire piece, it had already travelled far and wide in social media.
A few weeks later, the site “Conservative Post” published a story claiming Tom Hanks had switched his support from Hillary Clinton to the Republican nominee. This too was proven to be erroneous.
Thanks to the “filter-bubble” phenomenon – in which people become increasingly isolated in their own ideological bubble and separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoint – many people still believed these “news” stories were true weeks after they were exposed by mainstream media.
The 2016 US presidential election was marred by controversies and fake news. A BuzzFeed news investigation found that during the last three months of the campaign, the 20 top-performing fake news stories drove more engagement than the 20 top-performing reports from major news outlets.
Many of these featured high in Google searches and were widely circulated on social media platforms like Facebook. Facing growing criticism, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced last Friday that his company would come up with “new measures” to cut down on fake news. Google announced a similar plan to ban sites that deliberately distribute misleading information. Even Barack Obama waded in. At a news conference in Berlin last Thursday, the American president warned that fake news could poison politics to the point that “we don’t know what we are fighting for”.
The concerns are widely shared by many outside the United States. At a media conference in London this week, a European executive wondered aloud that, with some 70 elections coming up in Europe, they would face a relentless onslaught of fake or misleading “news” in cyberspace.
“Instead of going out to report news, our reporters now have to spend a substantial amount of time to verify and debunk rumours. Some are blatantly wrong, but people still read and share them,” an editor told me.
In Asia it is the same. Whenever there is major news – be it an election or major breaking events – social media will be flooded with “citizen reports”. Most are valuable, but some are diabolically bogus. Not all fake news stories are easy to detect: some are half-truths; some are deliberately told without context. Worse still, some are passed on as matter-of-fact by well-known commentators in their opinion pieces – without any attribution to the source.
These problems, however, are hardly new but they are greatly amplified by modern technology.
The earliest forms of modern newspapers, which appeared in 19th century Europe and America, were affiliated with political parties. They were mouthpieces for party leaders to speak to their followers. The papers were mandatory for party members. News reporting was not important. Most of the articles were one-sided opinion pieces.
This changed in 1833 when Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun and introduced a whole new business model: he hired unemployed people to hawk his papers on the streets. Day took no subscriptions. You bought and walked. To reach the general public, the paper’s focus shifted from opinionated commentaries to gossip and news. Stories needed to be sensational, vicious and eye-catching.
Day was soon joined by others like James Gordon Bennett and Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer, whose name today is associated with high-quality journalism, in his time was a sensationalist newsmonger. These news tycoons competed fiercely for public attention. They paid large sums to tipsters to get the raciest stories with little attention given to fact-checking. Fakes and embellishments were the rule of the day.
Since newspapers were sold on a one-off basis, editors were under constant pressure to create excitement to help sales. They didn’t have to worry about credibility since the papers were not on a subscription model and there was no reader loyalty. This dirty, crazy era later became known as the yellow press age.
Then came another newsman – Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times. Ochs had an epiphany: he believed that the high-income elite would always need good-quality information. And if you built a loyal community with these customers, advertisers would pay a premium to reach them. Ochs told his colleagues: “Decency means dollars.”
He was the first publisher to solicit long-term subscriptions via telephone. He would compete with others on the quality of content. He came up with the phrase, “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, as a mission statement to the editorial staff. This subscription model set forth new conditions in which a newspaper’s business was aligned with the long-term loyalty of its readers. Daily circulation was no longer the king – instead, image and reputation was. Ochs’ brilliance was his understanding that the news business was a trust business.
Errors needed to be corrected in the following day’s paper. Facts needed to be double checked and properly sourced. Opposing views had to be included and uncertainty acknowledged. Since news articles did not spread on their own but rather as part of the whole, the brand of the paper was much more valuable than the virality of any individual article.
Ochs’ brand model prospered until the arrival of the internet age, which has fundamentally changed the way news is consumed. Suddenly, we are back in the same situation the yellow press faced two centuries ago. News is increasingly read in social media as a one-off item. Each story must sell itself and be heard over the others. Instead of relying on one or two media outlets, readers are presented with a constant flow of stories from all sides. This weakens the trust between news providers and readers. Today most readers are not loyal subscribers – they are fly-bys.
At the London conference, many media outlets admitted that most of their readers were in this category. The conversion rate of turning them into loyal subscribers was below single digit. Most traffic was driven by Google searches or Facebook. And for the young generation, the majority won’t even go to news sites directly.
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This presents a huge challenge to the media industry in the form of dwindling revenue and growing difficulty in cultivating readership loyalty and building trust. Meanwhile, information manipulation – in all forms and for all purposes – thrives under such conditions.
As page-views become the key metric to measuring success, the focus has now shifted towards how to “game” the system. Exaggerated headlines, fanciful but irrelevant clickbait and provocative statements not backed up by facts – all the “black magic” of the yellow press age – are making a comeback with a vengeance.
The media industry is painfully searching for a new business model. Many media companies are turning to technology and data science for help, trying to better understand readers’ behaviour. Hopefully, somebody will come up with a new “Ochs moment” – his epiphany more than a century ago is still relevant: at its heart, the news business is a trust business. ■
Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations