The Misinformation Matrix

Trent Ernst, Editor

Claire Wardle, over at First Draft News, has a proposal.

We call so many things fake news, she says, that the term has become meaningless.

But without an alternative, she says, “we’re left awkwardly using air quotes whenever we utter the phrase.”

The reason we’re struggling with a replacement, she argues, is because it is about more than news. Indeed, she says, it’s about the entire information ecosystem.

“The term fake doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of the different types of misinformation (the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation (the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false).”

To understand the information ecosystem, she says, there are three elements that need to be analyzed. “The different types of content that are being created and shared, the motivations of those who create this content, and the ways this content is being disseminated.”

This, she says, allows us to break “fake news” down into eight categories: Poor Journalism, Parody, Provocation, Passion, Partisanship, Profit, Political Influence and Propaganda.

Missing from the list is one of the most common things termed “fake news”: stuff that the reader doesn’t like. This has led to no less than the President of the United States calling media sources he doesn’t like “fake.”

By using a more refined means of determining what it is that is being called fake news, we can better understand the world around us and how we react to it.

It allows us to better understand the motivation behind what we are reading.

For instance, if we read that “Man Who Skipped Airport’s Moving Walkway Immediately Realizes What An Arrogant Fool He’s Been,” and see the source is the Onion, most of us will realize that this is probably parody and we don’t take it seriously because we are not meant to take it seriously.

Sometimes it’s not cut and dried. The Onion can be partisan as it is parodying, and no newspaper in the word can completely shake free of the quest for profitability.

But using the guise of news to spread misinformation is nothing new. Journalistic ethics are a relatively recent invention.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that King George was working with “murderous scalping Indians” to influence public option for the American Revolution.

In 1835, the New York Sun wrote a series of articles, allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science, relating to the discovery of life on the moon by Sir John Herschel.

Hershel, the scientist, was real, the discovery of life on the moon was not.

The stories pushed the paper’s circulation up to the unheard of numbers of 19,360, the biggest circulation of any newspaper at the time.

Strangely enough, when the hoax was revealed, circulation didn’t drop. Fake news, it appears is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the trouble is the very idea of news.

We confuse news with facts, and while the facts (who, what, where, when, why and how) form the basis of any good journalistic endeavour, the, well, the “fact” is that a couple of these, especially “why” are not as hard and fast as we’d like them to be.

We constantly create and recreate our perception of reality. We re-evaluate and recast even our own motivations. Our memories are fallible. Our realities are shifting shadows cast upon the wall of Plato’s cave. Now, we see as through a mirror, darkly. And our motivations are sometimes unknown, even to us.

Why? Why indeed. That is the question that often drives us. Why are we here? What’s life all about?

And maybe it will help us understand fake news. If we can at least start to grasp the motives of the creator, we can start to figure out how to deal with it. We can begin to process it in ways that are a little more refined than simply “I don’t like that; therefore it is wrong. Therefore it is fake.”