Finding News In The Noise

11/18/2017 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2017

It’s time to wake up to this very simple realization: Fake news won’t fix itself.

Our information ecosystem is awash in garbage, noise pollution that makes it almost impossible to separate signal from noise.

It’s not a small problem, and it’s not going to be solved by pointing fingers or placing blame.

The New York Times reported on a YouTube blogger, Elmer T. Williams, who calls himself “The Doctor of Common Sense.” Within an hour of the Sutherland Springs church shooting, Williams told his 90,000 subscribers that the shooter was “either a Muslim or black.” After the shooter was identified (he was neither) Williams updated his video to say the shooter was a "Bernie Sanders supporter associated with antifa — a left-wing anti-fascist group — who may have converted to Islam.”

In the new world of ready/fire/aim fake news, The Doctor of Common Sense was able to push out topical, timely videos that were little more than fanatical fictions.

And yet, in the digital firehose of unfiltered voices, Williams gets equal billing.

Last week, after months of research with many of the leaders of news, and technology, I published a TED Talk on fake news’ impact, suggesting a solution to the problem.

Clearly the sense is that something has to change in how we create, consume, and share information. The talk has been viewed more than 17,000 times on Facebook, YouTube, Linked In and Twitter.

My thesis is that fake news is a wake-up call. No longer can we casually consume information and presume it to be factual and honest. Each of us needs to become conscious news consumers. Welcome to the era of awake news.

For publishers, awake news demands that publications state their journalistic standards and editorial point of view. If they’re a balanced and objective publication, readers should know that. If their editorial and opinion writers have different standards than news writers, make that clear. Sharing how facts are checked, shared, and attributed is essential to build trust with readers.

For platforms like Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook, awake news rewards those that provide clarity, sources, and content metadata that labels news, opinion and satire.

For the public, awake news asks readers to question the content they read and share, and to be responsible news creators and curators. Awake news consumers can stop fake news by exercising restraint and thoughtful social sharing.

Fake news requires us to accept that fact that we are no longer just passive news consumers. We engage with stories, we share them, we click “like,” we retweet. These actions amplify media.

Let’s face it, we all have shared a salacious headline with a gleeful click, without taking a moment to check with Snopes to see if it’s true. Spreading bad information is no different from not washing your hands. A virus is a virus.

Fake news requires us to become active new participants — more engaged, more thoughtful.

It’s easy to ask technology companies to “fix” fake news, but all they can do is build new tools for us. It’s our responsibility to stop using words as weapons, and instead engage in civil conversations that build bridges and help heal the divide that thoughtless name-calling and digital demagoguery has created.

It’s time to engage in Awake News. Participate, publish, and be present to the information and ideas that make our democracy work.

Steven Rosenbaum at TED HQ
Photo Credit: Ryan Lash/TED
Steven Rosenbaum at TED HQ
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