Tom Burton: separating fact and fiction


Even intelligent people can disagree on the “facts”, so should government try to regulate fake news? Media stalwart Tom Burton breaks down the issues for government.

It is 34 years since the dollar was floated, arguably the single most important reform of the post-war period. And 34 years of argument between then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating (and their offices) about who actually led the push to liberalise the currency.

The “Hawke” version is that Keating was reluctant to upset the status quo and had bought the alleged Treasury line, then led by John Stone, that it would lead to widespread market instability. The alternative view, promoted by Keating through several books and interviews, is that it was “old jellyback” Hawke, who, along with his chief economic adviser, Ross Garnaut, were worried about the disruption it would cause.

To this day, depending who you talk to, you will get contradictory views from eye witnesses, many of whom remain among the economic elite of the country.

As they say, intelligent people can disagree, even on the “facts”. Which is a long-winded way of introducing the concept psychologists have long known to be true, we believe what we want to believe.

Be it religion, community, family, ideology or politics, we craft our reality how we want it to be. Enter fake news and the declaration by key Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway that there are facts and alternatives facts.

While Conway has been mocked for her alternative universe, when it comes to news — and in particular what to do about fake news — it is important to consider our propensity to believe what we want to believe. And to cite alleged facts to support our belief.

Which is what makes any attempt to stop or regulate fake news deeply problematic.

Knowing what’s really germane

In media, various research has identified three broad need spaces when it comes to so-called news. First, there is our desire to know what has happened — 33 houses destroyed in NSW bushfires. Typically we are in this mode in the morning.

Second is a need to belong — to a football club, to our local town, to a recreational hobby group, like fishing. In this mode facts often take a back stage as even the most intelligent people cheer wildly for their tribe and discount any facts that don’t fit that narrative. Ask any professional referee.

Third is our need to be entertained. This is the world of celebrity mags and blogs, where the same woman can be pregnant, divorced and having three affairs, all at the same time. It is fantasy stuff, concocted to entertain as we relax on weekends and evenings. FM radio often falls into the same bucket. Ditto satire.

Arguably it is only the first category which needs to be the focus of any attempt to rein in fake news. But even within this category there needs to be a more nuanced approach. Old school journalism would insist all assertions to be supported by on the record sources, so the veracity of the claim can be verified. Modern journalistic practice in professional newsrooms often allows a broad brush approach, allowing so called “government sources” to be the support for the so-called fact. That this source could be totally conflicted is conveniently ignored.

Another modern practice is to mix opinion and analysis into news articles, often leading to news that has a strong ideological line, masked in a veneer of news. A lot of mainstream American journalism falls into this category.

And of course there is the perennial issue of which facts to cite. History is written by the victors and victory inevitably has many fathers. Citing the relevant facts is of course the answer, but in a world of massive PR spin, good luck regulating that.

“Even if there was an inclination to regulate the worst cases, there is the very real issue of jurisdiction and the difficulty of enforcing any action against websites.”

Unlike many other professional areas you don’t need a licence to be a journalist. So even if you were ready to somehow regulate fake news you will run into the Alan Jones defence: “It’s called the Alan Jones show. Much of my stuff is opinion. I’m a broadcaster. I don’t pretend to be a journalist and I don’t know what that means anyway — they’ve got a certificate or something,” Jones told marketing site Mumbrella several years ago.

Then there is the issue of timing. I am fond of saying they wrap fish and chips in yesterday’s news. Today’s digitally delivered news has a far shorter shelf life in terms of its impact. The ACMA typically takes around three months to conclude any investigation and determination of a factual accuracy complaint made against the three commercial networks and their affiliates. Any attempt to regulate or manage the torrent of digital news would need to consider the efficacy of using taxpayer dollars to whack a mole that has long moved on. 

Even if there was an inclination to regulate the worst cases, there is the very real issue of jurisdiction and the difficulty of enforcing any action against websites, often located in countries with less effective legal systems.

Given the complexity of any government imposed solution, the answer would seem to be a combination of cognitive technologies, where computers learn and deal with fake news, and crowdsourced verification and professional fact checking. Wikipedia is a living example of a self-curated environment. Wikinews is a similar collaborative exercise for news. At the same time cutting off programmatic advertising — as Google and Facebook are now finally doing — should go a long way to removing the ongoing incentive to publish rubbish.