Category Archives: Trivia and impressionism

Fake news – an optimistic take

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Nobody likes fake news, whether produced for profit or for political purposes, and irrespective of how it has been disseminated.

It clearly exists, whether propaganda or churned out by the now infamous Macedonian teenagers.

But how much of an issue is fake news, narrowly understood as news that is factually wrong and/or fictitious while masquerading as news and is knowingly produced as such?

The first rule of writing about fake news is to admit that we do not really know what is going on: how much is there, produced by whom, who uses it, why, and how much does it influence them?

That said, here is an optimistic take on the fake news discussion–based on three points.

  1. Are there in fact likely to be significant effects of being exposed to fake news? Before jumping to the conclusion that people are in fact influenced by fake news, consider the following possible objections. First, most people are exposed to many different messages, pieces of information, and news stories every day, and research suggests that the effect of any one of these messages (like a fake news story) is likely to be very limited and short-lived, unless exposure is consistent, sustained, and very one-sided. Second, when people navigate news online, they rely in part on what their own browsing behaviour and various algorithmic filters lead them to, but also on source affiliation and social endorsements for cues on what to believe. Third, when they do in fact engage with news (some of which may be fake), they may do so in a whole lot of ways and for a whole lot of reasons that are more ritual and do not involve them actually believing that the information contained is necessarily true—think of this by analogy as being amused by a tabloid or gossip site, sharing something on Twitter or commenting on Facebook without actually having read it, etc.
  2. Everybody seems to think other people are fooled by fake news, few seem to think that they themselves have been fooled. The discussion around fake news seems to reflect at least in part what media researchers call “third-person effect”, the fact that people generally see media and communication “as having a greater effect on others than on himself or herself”. Often, these “others” happen to people who are (a) poor and have low levels of education and (b) with whom those worried about the effect disagree politically, adding a bit of classism and partisan polarization to the discussion. (BuzzFeed and Ipsos did one of the most interesting and important empirical studies of fake news in the US back in December, and found that 33% of survey respondents—a clear minority—recalled seeing fake news headlines during the election (57% recalled real news headlines). Of those who did recall fake news headlines, a majority (especially amongst Republicans and Trump supporters), rated those headlines as “very accurate” or “somewhat accurate”—though keep in mind as is clear from the topline data, in most cases, most respondents answered “somewhat accurate”).
  3. Of course, fake news is likely to be important for some. Selective exposure to partisan fake news (we tend to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing views while avoiding information that contradicts it) and motivated reasoning (we tend to process information so that it fits with our existing beliefs) means that for a minority of very highly partisan people, fake news probably shore up and even further polarize their political views. But here fake news is arguably (unless empirical work can find that there is a lot of it and people pay a lot of attention to it) a small part of a larger story of partisan polarization in some countries (including notably the US) and of a media industry that has moved from providing mostly middle-of-the-road, he-said/she-said news committed to some version of attempted objectivity to a situation where more and more media are clearly partisan or perhaps deliberately and for largely commercial reasons peddle moral outrage. Fake news may intensify this development, but if so clearly builds on a much broader and long-standing development.

There are no doubt a group of people who are fooled by fake news and who in fact are influenced by it.

And it seems clear that fake news is not only cheaper to produce (and monetize) today, but also easier to disseminate online than ever before.

But until someone provide evidence to the contrary, I suspect most people are exposed to relatively little fake news (and a lot of other stuff) and are not very much influenced by it.

Point one and two above, building on decades of empirical media research, suggest that, until there is evidence to the contrary, we should expect only a minority of people to be both (a) exposed to fake news, (b) fooled by it, and (c) in fact influenced by it. Point three of course suggests that there is another minority who may rely in part on fake news as they maintain partisan identities, but, as said, this is arguably a broader point about political (partisan polarization) and media (move from mass to niche, including partisan niche).

None of this means that we should not take fake news seriously or that there aren’t reasons to be concerned when people produce fake news, either for profit or for political purposes. Nor does it mean that we should not be concerned about the question of whether technology platforms including Google and Facebook enable the production and dissemination of fake news (though they also enable a whole lot more, and any call for change, intervention, and/or regulation needs to keep this in mind, and to think about whether the cure is sometimes worse than the disease).

But what this optimistic take on fake news does mean is that we should not let the passionate and heated (and sometimes largely evidence-free and polemical) discussion distract us from a set of arguably more fundamental challenges concerning news and the role of news in contemporary politics and public life.

These include—

  • Do non-fake news in fact serve society well in terms of how they have dealt with issues including Brexit and Donald Trump? The loud discussion around fake news risks obscuring a critical discussion of (real) news and how well different (real) news organizations handle their public role. Some news organizations did a valiant and principled job. Others did not. Research on rumours both offline and online suggest people turn to “improvised news” (often inaccurate, sometimes outright falsehood) especially in times of crisis when conventional news may be scarce or do not answer the questions people have.
  • Why is it that so many people (in the US almost 40%) do not trust (real) news and in some cases don’t accept that (real) news is much different from fake news, or much more trustworthy than fake news? As a media researcher and as someone who personally believes in the public value of much of journalism, warts and all, I am concerned that the focus on one easy target of moral approbation—fake news—distracts from the fact that many people think of much of news, sometimes justifiably so, as less than trustworthy, and often out of touch with their problems, values, and concerns.
  • Are the political outcomes of political processes like the UK referendum on the European Union and the US Presidential Election perhaps first and foremost political in nature? Blaming Macedonian teenagers making things up for a living, Russian propaganda, and the opaque algorithms of powerful and profitable technology companies for an election result draws attention away from whether in fact these outcomes were primarily driven by more fundamental political, social, and economic processes (and that these in turn vary by country).

An optimistic take on fake news may thus (perhaps pessimistically) suggest that the most important questions we face around media and democracy today concern real news, and how real news—often on an eroding resource base—can cover highly partisan politics, reach more people, and connect societies that in some cases seem more and more polarized in terms of both social values and relative affluence.

(Many thanks to David Levy and Richard Fletcher for comments on this piece. I wrote this in part because Gina Neff effecitvely told me to.)

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Selection of 2015 Reuters Institute Digital News Report coverage from around the world

Our new Digital News Report is out. All data, from 2015 and back to the first study in 2012, is freely available, as is the report itself and essays by James Harding, Emily Bell, and others, at digitalnewsreport.org.

Below a selection of the news coverage from around the world, including news organizations from countries with a combined population of more than 3.5 billion (thanks to China and India in large part)-

BBC: “News outlets need ‘more inventive’ business model.”

Reuters: “Surge in smartphones’ popularity, social media threaten online news providers” (this was widely published all over the world, like Indonesia), it was published also in Spanish “Aumento en uso de celulares y redes sociales amenaza a proveedores de noticias en internet.” (this too was republished in various places).

Financial Times: “Young people switch off television news in increasing numbers.”

Guardian: “News outlets face losing control to Apple, Facebook and Google.”

Huffington Post: “For Newspapers Swimming in Rough Currents of Digital Era, More Bad News.”

BuzzFeed: “Apple’s Mobile Ad-Blocking Move May Be Good News For Facebook.”

Indian Express: “Why surge of smartphones, social media threatens ad-revenue for news sites.”

The Hindustan Times: “How surge in smartphones, social media could threaten online news providers.”

South China Morning Post: “Apple hiring spree for iPhone News curators sparks censorship fears.”

Tencent (China): “智能手机兴起 社交媒体威胁在线新闻”

Liberation: “Infos en ligne : plus de mobile, mais toujours personne pour payer.”

Corriere della Sera: “Reuters: niente carta, gli italiani preferiscono ancora la tv.”

Die Welt: “Wie wir uns informieren werden – die zehn wichtigsten Thesen des “Reuters Digital News Report” and “Für Online-News will kaum jemand wirklich zahlen.”

Berlingske: “Nyheder læser man da på Facebook.”

De Telegraaf: “Sociale media verdrijven nieuwsapps.”

Financni Noviny: “Popularita smartphonů je prý hrozbou pro zpravodajské organizace.”

Irish Times: “Irish half as likely to pay for online news as Finns and Danes.”

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “Facebook, Google set to crowd out competitors in digital news.”

Politico.eu: “Brits and Germans reluctant to pay for online news.”

Various trade publications have also picked up on the report–

Nieman Lab: “Smartphones and Facebook continue to grow as gateways to online news around the world.”

Columbia Journalism Review: “Digital news consumers unlikely to pay for content and increasingly block ads.”

Journalism.co.uk: “Study: Smartphone is ‘defining device’ in digital news.”

Meedia: “Digital News Report: der unaufhaltsame Aufstieg von Smartphones und Social Media.”

Poynter Institute: “One-third of readers disappointed or deceived by sponsored content.”

Visiting Professor in Munich

Through the good offices of Thomas Hanitzsch, I’ll be spending the summer semester as a visiting professor at the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.

I will be teaching two courses (one on political communication and one on interview methods, focused on what I call “folk theories of journalism”), supervising some students on their thesis work, and enjoying a new intellectual environment while working on some of me comparative media research.

I also hope to use the opportunity to visit some of the Munich-based media organizations, such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, an up-market nationally distributed newspaper title which has held print circulation roughly stable over the last decade while building a significant online presence and Bayerischer Rundfunk, one of the biggest ARD affiliates.

Beyond that let me just say Munich has made a terrific first impression, it looks like a really interesting, beautiful, and lively city.

The question

I was on a dissertation committee yesterday at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussing Dave Bockino’s work on journalism education and journalism students in India and the US (congratulations on the doctoral degree, Dave!).

I didn’t get in my stock question, the one I always ask, so now I’ve copied it out from an old (2010) email to my friend Julia Sonnevend–then my fellow PhD student at Columbia–and here it is:

“OK, so the fact that [X] happens, and that [Y1, Y2, … Yn] can help us conceptualize it is interesting, but what does that mean? What is at stake in making that argument? What do we learn, what should we do differently?”

Fill in X and Y1, Y2 … Yn at your own leisure.

Julia called this “the Rasmus question”(which I’m kinda proud of) because I basically asked it every year at Columbia when we PhD students presented our dissertation projects, but really it is just me channeling the pragmatist philosophy of William James.

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. It’s digital politics as usual.

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. And as exciting as these new live streaming social media apps are, they certainly not “taking over” Washington, the Presidential Primary, or the 2016 elections (or any other political scene).

It’s the same old story, and we will hear it again and again over the next year and a half.

Much of the hype emanates from the run-up to the US presidential primaries and general elections and wild extrapolation from a few high profile incidents or particularlly succesful outliers.

  • 2004 was called the “Meetup Election” after Howard Dean’s spectacular primary campaign used the platform as part of its effort to mobilize volunteers and raise money.
  • 2008 was called the “Facebook Election” and the “YouTube Election” as these tools grew in importance and particularly the Obama campaign used them.
  • 2012, of course, was called the “Twitter Election” (by amongst others, a purely disinterested source like the CEO of, well, Twitter) as that was the new tools of the season.
  • And 2016 in addition to having already been dubbed the Meerkat Election will probably also be called the Snapchat election and the Whatsapp election and surely more too.

Much of all this hype is driven by a combination of tech journalists and political reporters with an endless need for new content and always looking for the new thing and self-interested sources like political operatives and tech professionals who have a story to tell. (It turns out that the Smith for President social media director thinks social media may decide the election, and that social media consultant Johnson and social media CEO Williams agree.)

One is tempted to say that much of it is bullshit (in the technical sense of the term as communication designed to impress), as no one seems to care whether it is actually true in any meaningful sense of that word. Thought-provoking that even very self-consicously “serious” news outlets lend their name to this stuff.

It’s all predictable but slightly annoying, as is the tendency of some journalists in other countries to pick up on coverage of US election campaigns and assume that whatever happens (or could/will/may happen there) will eventually also decide the upcoming election in country X.

What is missing from this is the simply but important point made by everyone from serious political professionals like David Plouffe (as he has written, “balanced communications across all mediums is critical in any messaging effort today”) over scholars of political communication and media like Andrew Chadwick to historians of technology like David Edgerton: the interplay between old and new media is not either/or scenario where a succession of new media arrive, displace old media like television and inherited campaign practices like going door-to-door, and proceed to decide the election in a blaze of dazzling technology-driven power. It is an additive process where new forms of campaign communication are gradually added on to existing, well-known ones in the pursuit of victory.

So what we have today is digital politics, yes, because these tools—all these tools, including seemingly old and unsexy “mundane tools” like email, spreadsheets, databases, etc—are increasingly integral to much of what many of us do, especially in high income democracies, and hence also important parts of the political process.

But it is digital politics as usual, as old media and campaign practices remain stubbornly important and central, and elections are still won as much on the basis of policy, personality, performance, and at the mercy of events and conjecture like changes in the economy.

I know saying we have a “complicated” election ahead of us that will be decided by a combination of many different factors and where those involved will rely on a wide range of different forms of communication, most of them fairly well-known and older ones, is not very exciting. But it is the honest-to-God truth of the matter. Calling it the “app-of-the-year election” is not.

Now that is off my chest at least I will have this blog post to point to for the rest of the 2015-2016 election season and probably for the rest of my life.

First month flew by…

It’s been a great first month in my new job as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Working with the rest of the team here in Oxford, I’ve—

  • Submitted two major grant applications for really interesting research projects.
  • Developed a tailored executive education program designed especially for a group of high level news executives coming here in February.
  • Formally started my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics, amongst other things announcing our new annual conference (deadline for submission of abstracts March 27) and our new annual best book award (deadline for nominations February 15).
  • Seen the 2015 Reuters Institute Digital News Report survey go into the field in a record number of countries with a revised an expanded set of questions, promising a really interesting cross-national and comparative dataset.

Beyond my own work in research and development, it is just a great privilege to welcome our fantastic group of journalist fellows and visiting fellows to Oxford and to connect and reconnected with friends old and new in Oxford and London.

I’m particularly looking forward to supervising Sumit Pande (Political Editor at CNN-IBN) and his research on the role of digital media in the New Delhi assembly elections, where the Aam Aadmi Party is really shaking things up and were all parties are developing new digital strategies as part of their overall campaign in a context very different from the high income democracies I know best.

Interesting times, all in all.

Goodbye to 2014, good-day to 2015

2014 has been a terrific year for me professionally.

Tomorrow, January 1, I formally take up my new position as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. I’m really looking forward to this exciting opportunity to work at the interface between academic research, professional journalism, and media management and policy-making.

I also assume my new role as editor in chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics (published by Sage), where I’ll work with the editorial board, Cristian Vaccari (who will serve as book review editor) and the wider scholarly community to develop the journal as the main platform for high-quality international and cross-nationally comparative research focused on the intersection between news media and politics.

Beyond my new job and my new role as editor, I’m also honored have received two major awards in the past year First, the Doris Graber Award given by the American Political Science Association for the best book on political communication published in the last ten years for my book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Second, the Tietgen Prize given by the Danish Society for Business Education (DSEB) for research in the social sciences and humanities that is practically relevant for the industry it concerns for my research on changes in the news media. I’m humbled and honored to have received this kind of recognition from both academic colleagues and from the professional world I study.

Other highlights have been some terrific conferences and events, including our Editors and CEO workshop in Oxford, a really interesting seminar in Barcelona bringing different perspectives to bear on the challenges facing journalism and perhaps especially the preconference on qualitative political communication research I organized with my wonderful and inspiring colleagues Daniel Kreiss, Dave Karpf, and Matt Powers at ICA in Seattle.

So, good-bye to a terrific year for me professionally—and good day to new exciting challenges in 2015.