While the media demands trust from audiences, business models favour clicks, views and shares, explained James Ball, special correspondent, BuzzFeed UK, at the 'Fake news: Inside the problem and how to fix it' panel discussion at City University earlier this week (1 March).
"If we are trying to get loads of display ads and page views, that often means, when it seems to be low-stakes, we run content without checking it," Ball said, noting that the ecosystem fails to reward publishers who wait to verify content before publishing.
"This makes the media vulnerable to people who want to use mainstream outlets for misinformation to get in."
For example, a now-seemingly staged video of a woman tearing a wing mirror from a catcaller's van gained over 79 million views on just the Daily Mail's Facebook page, and featured on many major news sites including The Sun, Mashable, the Evening Standard and The Telegraph.
If you'd had stopped and waited to verify and check, you'd have missed out on the traffic all-together and got no revenue, so we actually reward running this unchecked footageJames Ball, BuzzFeed UK
However, the content was not verified by Viral Thread, the page that originally uploaded the content, nor by any of the news organisations who then went on to buy the footage and report on it.
"It is great content, the kind of stuff we all read and click on, but essentially, that was unchecked footage bought up by an agency, and then sold on to news outlets for between £150 - £400 a pop, and anyone who bought it and just whacked it up very quickly with a headline, got hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views," Ball said.
"After a few hours, The Sun looked into it and got a quote from someone suggesting it was questionable, but by this point, the agency's made its money, the websites have made their money, and several publishers just changed their headlines.
"While we are demanding that the audience trust mainstream outlets and put us on a higher pedestal, our business models favour getting the clicks – if you'd had stopped and waited to verify and check, you'd have missed out on the traffic all-together and got no revenue, so we actually reward running this unchecked footage."
Indeed, disinformation, the intentional spread of false or misleading information to deceive audiences, has become increasingly cheaper and easier to do as audiences engage with news online, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, where users share stories with friends within a matter of seconds.
Sponsored links that are designed to look like part of a website are also often guilty of pushing lies for clicks to low quality or fake news sites, Ball explained, but they are well-paying adverts, and have become an important part of journalism's business model.
But he noted that this often-called 'fake news' is the "pantomime villain in the room behind what's going on right now".
"In all honesty, you can spread misinformation or disinformation right now by accurately quoting the president of the United States," he explained, adding that publishers need to start tackling the "post-truth bullshit era" we are in by addressing hyperpartisan news, and stories that are sensationalised, radicalised, and spun out of context, to prevent accurate information from being given undue prominence.
"We are all falling into this information smog, and if we think we can tackle it by getting Google to cut off advertising to a hoax website, or getting Facebook to put 'fact-checkers think this is questionable' on a hoax piece, we are kidding ourselves."
Free daily newsletter
- Project Text allows US local journalists to connect with audiences through mobile messaging
- Tip: Eight tools for detecting false news
- Weekly journalism news update: fighting misinformation, public service journalism projects, Instagram hashtag strategies
- What does content verification mean in the age of deepfakes?
- Tip: Spot fake news on Facebook