Fighting misinformation

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When it comes to fake news, nobody is talking about the importance of copyright, writes Roy Kaufman

In 2016, 'fake news' managed to steal all the headlines. In fact, a virtual tsunami of misinformation has knocked traditional media off its pedestal and, along with it, trust in news reporting.

Whether you blame politicians, obnoxious 'click bait' concocted by teenagers in Macedonia, or just Facebook, there’s another culprit, one that may ultimately tarnish gold-standard journalism for good. The gradual weakening of copyright in our share-and-share-alike digital world has sucked the oxygen from reputable journalistic sources, creating a vacuum that fake news fills only too happily.

'Copyright incentivises owners of news media to invest in journalism, because they’ll get a return on their investment and they’ll get protection from infringers,' Danielle Coffey, vice president, public policy, of the News Media Alliance, told me recently. 'The result is respectable, verifiable journalism in the hands of users.'

Under the traditional business model, news organisations published high-quality content for large audiences in the hope that advertisers would foot the bill. This revenue once supported a global infrastructure of reporters, photographers, and researchers. Facebook, Google and other online platforms rely on advertising for their business models, too, though they prefer the most click-worthy content, whether it’s high quality or not.

In other words, the rise of fake news results naturally from the slow destruction of real news.

'If there was real protection for real news, there’d be more of it,' agrees Coffey. 'The fake news shouldn’t get the ad dollars.'

By relentlessly fighting against copyright, the platform companies have helped to destroy the economic underpinning of legitimate news, and created a market environment where fake news is more profitable than real news.

One possible solution is for news organisations to work with the tech giants to develop ways to detect and take down fake news. Although tech giants are now discussing using algorithms to detect and combat fake news, supporting a system that properly rewards creators would be a more direct path.

Another solution might involve some form of badge on real news to assure readers that the information is from a legitimate source. In that world, search engines would elevate the original, trustworthy content to the top of the search page, in the same way that an original painting – protected by copyright – gets space on a museum wall and that a fake painting doesn’t. 'You wouldn’t put a fake right next to a real painting,' says Coffey.  

This approach would need to be combined with a system that stops rewarding fake news in the first place and that bars known providers of such materials. Tech companies can set their own terms of use, and so, they could do this easily. But right now, they have little incentive to bother.

So, what can be done to stem the tide of misinformation? Fake news is a mess that won’t be solved with an algorithm alone. Without effective enforcement of rights, the devaluation of content will continue.

'The problem is, in the news industry, enforcing copyright without support from platforms is prohibitively expensive. There’s so much uncertainty,' says Coffey. And when there is uncertainty in the marketplace, businesses are doomed to fail.

Doomed to fail indeed. Recently, the long-form citizen journalism site announced that it was laying off a third of its staff. The founder, Evan Williams, admitted that free content funded solely by corporate interests (AKA ads) wasn’t working.

He wrote: 'We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention. We believe there are millions of thinking people who want to deepen their understanding of the world and are dissatisfied with what they get from traditional news and their social feeds. We believe that a better system — one that serves people — is possible. In fact, it’s imperative.'

As Neil Turkewitz, senior policy counsel at the International Center for Law & Economics has pointed out: 'The better system already exists; it's called copyright.'

As a society, we need a plan to undermine fake news.  Rebuilding the protection copyright affords to journalism is a good place to start.