The Poynter Institute Tried to Take On Fake News, Learned It’s Not So Easy
I found this story a little late, but I find it to be illustrative of the whole difficulty with trying to fight what has become known as “fake news”.
On Tuesday, April 30, Poynter posted a list of 515 “unreliable” news websites, built from pre-existing databases compiled by journalists, fact-checkers and researchers around the country. Our aim was to provide a useful tool for readers to gauge the legitimacy of the information they were consuming.
By May 2 though…
Therefore, we are removing this unreliable sites list until we are able to provide our audience a more consistent and rigorous set of criteria. The list was intended to be a starting place for readers and journalists to learn more about the veracity of websites that purported to offer news; it was not intended to be definitive or all encompassing.
First of all, let’s talk about the attempt. They grabbed a list from some unnamed journalists and fact checkers, and it turns out that maybe some of their biases crept in, because there were sites listed on it that weren’t publishing unreliable information, just some information that someone on the teams of people compiling the database didn’t particularly agree with.
This is problem number 1 with fighting, or even prohibiting, “fake news”. Who gets to tell us which source is telling the truth. Do we want the government stepping in and deciding that? That seems a little despotic, no? What would stop any administration from listing any opposing view point as fake? Not much. Do we want some non-governmental agency doing it? Who is checking their results for bias? In this case, no one was, certainly not the Poynter Institute.
Secondly, that last line I quoted above seems to be rather disingenuous to me. Let’s put this statement in more simplistic language, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Poynter posted a list of 515 websites that we definitively declared were “unreliable”, then we realized it might have been a biased list that was inaccurate, so now we want to say that our “list of definitively unreliable websites was really just a suggestion, a “starting place” for discussion really.
I call BS. Poynter absolutely meant for this list to be taken literally, anyone on the list was not to be trusted, any one not on it could be, subject to their being added later. Trying to back-pedal it now because they didn’t vet the list for themselves at all is careless and lazy. Now that they’ve been caught, they want to go back and vet it properly, but I always come back to the same question:
Who is vetting their work, and by telling people to simply take their list and not research anything for ourselves, do they expect us to be that careless and lazy too? That’s no way to run a democracy.
Sadly, it will be the way social media is run. These are exactly the kinds of lists Facebook, Twitter, et al. will be relying on to limit what people can say or share on their platforms. They are now in the business of shutting out certain voices. Eventually, they’ll get to someone you care about. Then it won’t be so hypothetical.
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