Slave to the Algorithm


Declaring “the news is broken and we can fix it”, Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales today announced that he’s planning a news service that helps combat the problem of “fake news”. Wikitribune, will apparently combine the work of professional journalists and citizen journalists to offer “factual and neutral” articles.

This is a welcome move. The rise in social media has thrown open communications.  It has changed the way we all work, most particularly in the PR industry.  However, technology also means that what consumers read is largely what they want to read.

As algorithms sift and filter content, increasingly we read the news that is relevant to our interests, we’re alerted to the stories that will interest us and we speak to like-minded people.  Social and online media is effectively segregating and defining social groups and consumers.

With the need for click bait and attractive content to boost SEO, the rise in fake news has been well documented.  From fake stories about plastic celebrities to influencing US voters via fabricated news, it is increasingly difficult to define the truth.  Fake news is itself a hot news topic at the moment.  There is a lot of debate about how to stop it, what to do about it and whether it is actually anybody’s fault, particularly whether the PR industry is to blame.

As PR practitioners who have signed up to CIPR and PRCA codes of conduct, we are duty bound not to create fake news ourselves.  However, many content generators are not bound by rules at all and have free reign in flooding the internet with their material.  The issue that really faces the PR industry is not how do we stop PRs from generating fake news, but how do we spot it and control it without undermining freedom of speech and legitimate commentary.

The PRCA recently issued a guidance note on fake news, and concluded that for our industry to function and be valuable, we have to be able to trust our news outlets.  It says that as media practitioners we have a duty to educate the public in spotting fake news and knowing what to do about it. This is relatively straightforward for intelligent media-savvy professionals. However, what do we do about children and young people?

With young people now digesting their news content via social media and with 66% of teenagers being relaxed about overtly biaised content, in the future fake news may have more credence and influence within this age group.  And, as these children reach voting age, it is essential they have the skills to sift out the fake from the real and make informed voting decisions.

The challenge therefore is wider than just within the media industry, but it is in ensuring our young people understand how to distinguish what is and isn’t fake, while learning how how the algorithm works.  The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently called for schools to take responsibility for educating children in critical and analytical skills within the curriculum.  Only by learning that there is another world beyond their like-minded bubble, will they be able to engage in real debate.

As an industry it is our responsibility to behave ethically while encouraging others to behave the same.  But it goes beyond that: as PR people, commentators and parents ourselves, we also have a duty to encourage technology companies and the owners of the algorithm, to both keep the internet clear of this stuff and educate users on how to see it, spot it and report it.

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