Saturday, 31 December 2016

Fake News is part of the New Fourth Estate: The Queen is Dead, Donald Trump takes Super Pills, and Pizzagate is Real

Like many Canadians, I woke up this morning, poured a coffee, and checked my phone for news. The first article, claimed a fake news story announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died. The story was published, distributed, discredited, and damage control counter stories published. Those stories are distributed throughout the Internet, and the main stream media picked up on the “buzz” and began playing catch-up reporting. All of this in the few hours I slept.

As I grew up in the 70’s my father advised me, “Don’t believe everything you read”. Today, as a father of a young “Millennial”, I now advise my daughter, “Don’t believe anything you read”, and you can hardly blame me for feeling this way.

The proliferation of fake news, combined with the smartphone/social media delivery mechanism, has left the “real news” agencies scrambling. The Fourth Estate (Professional Journalism) is being undermined by this new technological reality, and being irrevocably changed.

Countless individuals throughout the world, not only have the ability to publish false media, but publish false media that appears genuine. For every single professional journalist, there are thousands of bloggers, webmasters, content creators, and the like, publishing directly to readers smartphones. This dilution of credible content has fallout, and this fallout is impacting on our society.

Whether at the individual level, where a violent man believes that a pizzeria in Washington D.C. harbours a child trafficking ring, or at a community level where massive numbers believe Donald Trump has their best interests in mind; you cannot deny that “fake news” is now affecting us all.

I recall in the 70’s the “Emergency Sirens” that were mounted on telephone poles throughout my home town of Ottawa. They had been put up in the 60’s as part of an “Emergency Preparedness Strategy”. But we knew what they were really for... fallout of another kind.

Thankfully, I only heard my neighbourhood’s siren scream once, and that was part of a well publicized test. But I imagine if we had those same sirens in place today, they’d either be going off daily as we react to one published scare after another, or forever staying silent due to the lack of information credibility. The later being the most likely scenario.

It is a precarious position for society to not trust its Fourth Estate, and we are rapidly heading to that eventuality. This slippery slope of misinformation must be put in check now.

Before all trust is gone, profit models associated with social media published and promoted “news” need to be eliminated. Credible fact checking organizations need to be more involved and given more visible authority to approve content. Governments must establish policies regarding production and dissemination of false information. And we, as content producers, need to take responsibility for the content we create and use to populate the Internet.

For my part as web developer & content publisher, I pledge to stop acting as an interim step for those wishing to spread false information. I never flat out lied when publishing content for my clients, but I did act as a “spin doctor” massaging content, and I greatly regret that fact.

Like it or not, we are the New Fourth Estate. Maturity and responsibility are demanded. I know that now. As gatekeepers, we need to stand our ground against those wishing to spread falsehoods and hate. We need to revisit the concept of “Netiquette”, and take the honest, trusted high road.  

I know we cannot stop it all, but perhaps, we as “cyber authors” can begin ebbing the flow of fake news.

I invite all my counterparts out there to join me in this pledge.

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