How can we fix online news?

Online news is failing us: fake news is everywhere, and social media just echoes its users’ existing beliefs back to them. If you're not trying to discern fake news from the real deal, chances are you're listening to people justifying alternative facts.

But with what we read and share online having a huge impact on the real world, what can web designers do to help balance the signal to noise ratio? Is it merely a case of tweaking the website layout of news outlets, or are there deeper issues to tackle? We decided to ask the experts (because we still trust them) for their thoughts...

Support real news

"The ‘fake news’ phenomenon has three causes," argues Bruce Lawson, self-proclaimed web standards lovegod. "Firstly, the social media bubbles in which we live, whereby platforms amplify the stories they determine algorithmically that we’ll like, so our preconceptions are reinforced. 

"Secondly, many of the fake news sites were set up by people making money through advertising on them. Ads were meant to help site owners pay for content production; now they’re a web parasite that is in danger of killing the hosts. We need to value – and be prepared to pay for – real journalism again. 

"Thirdly, we need an easy way to pay for things on the web – hopefully the Payment Request API going through the W3C will fill that gap."

Redefine the terms

"The definitions of news and media have changed with the introduction of the web," says Open Web advocate Molly E. Holzschlag. "Whether it’s a conglomerate news site or a ‘citizen journalist’ blog, what we understand as news is changing. We must clarify what ‘news’ really means, what ‘the media’ is and what ‘journalists’ actually do. After redefinition, we must then turn to educational outreach and teach all people the skills of critical analysis, without which the truth will always be a bit beyond our reach."

Find a new busines model

"We blew it when we started believing engagement was the goal, and advertising was the best content business model," explains Josh Clark, founder of Big Medium. "‘Engagement’ encourages media companies to give us what we want to hear, not what’s true or challenging. The pursuit of ads and eyeballs has degraded content, and it isn’t even a sustainable business model. A new means of support is needed pronto, but in the meantime we should do what we can to support journalists doing the good work."

Invest in education

"Twitter and Facebook are a convenient scapegoat," reasons senior accessibility consultant Patrick Lauke. "They personalise your experience based on your friends and interests – it’s why we use them in the first place. Social media never claimed to be impartial, and it has no obligation to be fair and balanced.

"People getting their biased news from social networks is no different from people who watch Fox News or read Murdoch’s tabloids. There’s no technological quick fix. The solution is difficult: we need to educate people on how to critically evaluate news sources, and seek out different viewpoints."

Make it personal

"I don’t think the fake news itself will go away, but we can discredit unreliable sources (and people who share them) in how we design and develop products," suggests product designer and developer Faruk Ateş.

"We could reward people for spreading truthful news, or for debunking falsehoods effectively. We need a cultural shift to make believing in fake news a shameful act, something that costs a person more than an ill-informed world view. Solving this through technology alone, without tackling the psychological side, won’t suffice."

Highlight reliable authors

"We need to apply pressure to social media companies to display the person posting the article more prominently, so other users will see if it’s a source they recognise," says Caroline Sinders, the Eyebeam Open Lab Fellow with BuzzFeed News.

"Where we fall into greater problems is vetting the sources. Should we rely on Facebook to vet spaces like RT (Russian Times), Occupy Democrats, and so on? Google highlights potential spamming and phishing websites. Should Facebook block fake news sites? No. But should Facebook highlight ‘Hey, this is not a vetted or ‘real’ news site?’ Maybe. Should we trust Facebook to decide what is factual, what is a legitimate opinion and what is designed to be fake news to confuse people? That’s a much harder question to answer."

Use tools to guide people

"Anyone who has watched the evolution of interaction design over the past decade has seen how effective it can be at nudging human behaviour," observes design writer Carl Alviani. "Dealing with fake news is no more complex – it just requires us to create the right tools. Legitimate journalists and conscious readers are more than capable of spotting the culprits, all we need to do is make it easier for them to raise their voices than the propagandists’."

This article was originally published in net magazine issue 289; buy it here.

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