A small step against fake news

A simple proposal for combating fake news: all publications should have easy-to-spot and extremely thorough “ABOUT US” sections.

At one point I didn’t take fake news — articles, videos and message threads with false claims masquerading as legitimate news — all that seriously. I rather flippantly figured most people could discern between what’s credible and what’s not quite intuitively. But the reality is that a) some fake news is sophisticated and b) digital literacy varies a lot, and for many it’s far from intuitive or easy to tell the difference between legit sources, quasi-credible sources, and flat-out made-up bullshit.

One thing that really drove this home for me is some of the insane messages I’ve received from some older family members and friends in recent years. I’ve been forwarded so many far-fetched articles, videos and mass texts on WhatsApp and Facebook from well-intentioned, educated and otherwise-judicious people that it struck me how difficult it is to navigate information online for some demographics.

One very small but potentially useful step that the media industry itself could take is getting aggressive about “ABOUT US” sections. They should explain things like where the company is based, its history as an institution, its mission, give examples of its work that highlight its credibility (impact on policy, citations by other outlets, rewards, etc), explain its business model and where it’s money comes from, have a very robust masthead in which staff explain their own backgrounds in easy-to-understand language, describe their attitude toward reporting vs aggregating, and so on.

This of course won’t address most of the core issues that allow fake news to proliferate. And a fake news outlet could also just make up a ton of stuff in a very sophisticated-looking “ABOUT US” section. (Although maybe some kind of independent media watchdog could track media outlets that submit evidence of their about sections and confer some kind of “verified” badge? Maybe this is a crazy idea.) But if it became a norm it could help at least some people vet sources a little more carefully.

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