Five Minutes with Mike Ananny: On the history of fake news, challenges for journalists covering news today

Inside the classrooms at USC Annenberg, students are the ones typically tasked with answering the hard hitting questions. "Five Minutes with..." turns the table on faculty and staff to ask them the hard questions.


Mike Ananny, assistant professor of Communication and Journalism, researches the public significance of systems for networked journalism. Specifically, he studies how institutional, social, technological, and normative forces both shape and reflect the design of the online press and a public right to hear.

Ananny shared thoughts about how "fake news" is not something new but has been around for a long time, and how journalists can overcome the reporting challenges in today's political climate by understanding the cultures they report on, appreciating the complexities of different communication tools and platforms and staying critical and skeptical of both the tools and platforms they use.

You are quoted in the news about the fake news problem and looking at how social media platforms are figuring this all out. How did this become a problem, is it a recent phenomenon and what is the role algorithms and technology are playing in our society now?

The phenomenon that many people are now calling “fake news” is not new, but it is also not settled or well-understood.  For as long as people have told stories, created media, and tried to learn about events they did not experience themselves, they have spread misinformation.  Starting in the Revolutionary War period, extending through the Civil War and the 20th Century, publishers and sources in the U.S. and around the world have knowingly and unwittingly spread lies that helped special interests and partisan causes.  (In 1850s German, fake foreign reporting was so widespread it had its own term: unechte Korrespondenz.)

Today, though, information is produced, interpreted, circulated, and amplified faster than ever before, by more people than ever before, in more ways than we’ve ever seen.  As information speeds up and scales up through a mix of human- and algorithm-powered channels, we face new challenges.  The first is what it even means to call something “fake news."  Some people use the term simply to refer to something they don’t like and don’t want to be true, regardless of its factual basis.  Others openly engage with it as a partisan strategy — with little regard to the ethics of communicating in good faith, they are willing to spread lies if doing so helps advance their interests.  There are also grayer areas of fake news: when facts are not known or cannot be easily summarized, ambiguity can creep into a conversation and people quickly choose to believe what they want to believe.  Fake news is often more about identity than a simple test of whether something is true or not: when people call something “fake news” they often leave clues about how they wish media systems would work and what they would like to be true.  The clear-cut cases of truth or falsity are easy — it’s the more complex moments of interpretation that are messier and harder to judge.  That messiness has always been with us and probably always will be.  The challenge now is how to understand the role that algorithms and platforms play in that complexity, and how to engage with technology designers and users alike to create robust, diverse, accountable, trusted communication systems.

How can social media platforms like Facebook and companies like Google be transparent but also be held accountable for their roles in that dissemination of fake news that was news in recent months?

I don’t know any serious scholars who believe that “fake news” alone caused Donald Trump to be elected President.  Investigative journalists like Craig Silverman did a good job reporting on how false stories spread on platforms like Facebook, and how such spreading mapped to key campaign moments, but the really interesting questions emerging from these events center on how and why to hold platforms accountable.  Facebook and Google are both operating at such scale and speed that it is unreasonable and naïve to expect them to have human oversight over every piece of content (and I don’t think we’d want to give them that power anyway).  The challenge today is to figure out how to ensure public oversight of such large-scale, rapidly developing conversations through a mix of strategies: engaging with professional journalists to recognize patterns in false information, creating algorithmic solutions that can detect and respond to patterns, tracking and shutting down networks of bots designed to manipulate platforms and coerce users, building human oversight of such systems that allows for transparent editorial decision-making, educating platform users about the power and harm of false information, and creating strong regulatory oversight of companies that are increasingly monopolizing online advertising markets as they let fake news producers earn money off lies.

Facebook and Google are already making inroads in these areas — for example partnering with news and fact-checking organizations, changing algorithms, alerting users, and trying to police advertisers—but much more needs to be done on oversight.  Essentially, we don’t know much about how these companies and their systems work.  To hold them accountable and create more trusted systems we need far more knowledge about how they define “fake news,” and what’s at stake in their definitions, algorithms, and platform designs.  One thing they could do is create a new kind of “public editor” that was answerable not to platforms or news organizations trying to use the platforms to earn revenue, but to communication values, ethics, and principles designed to serve publics, not users or customers. I wrote a bit about this idea here

With the current news cycle and constant shifting of news on a national level, how can journalists navigate the political landscape capably?

Some journalists are already quickly adapting to the shifting landscape, but the principal thing they can do is be open and clear about the values guiding their work, and make sure that they are not distracted from those values by seemingly newsworthy crises.  (Brian Williams offered a case study of how not to do journalism when he reflected on the “beauty” of the missiles that bombed Syria – a lapse into old-style reporting that reifies the government during times of war, that forgets the journalistic mission of holding power accountable.)

Journalists are often reluctant to reflect on their public power and their public roles – they will often tell you their job is to “serve the public,” without telling you much more about “the public” other than that it has a right to receive facts.  In reality, journalists make myriad choices: some issues are pursued while others receive scant attention, some sources appear routinely while others never get a voice, some audiences are seen to matter while others rarely motivate reporting.  This is not to say that journalists are “biased” (this is as hard a term to define as “fake news”) but that journalists could be much more reflective about the choices they make, and acknowledge that, regardless of old myths of objectivity, they are *part* of political and media landscapes, not neutral observers.  Journalists should aim to be what MIT Professor Don Schon called “reflective practitioners” people who are world-class at their craft and who understand the conditions, compromises, and assumptions they operate under.

Reflective practitioners who are able to tell you why they did what they did, recognize their mistakes, and see themselves as people embedded in cultures that shape them are far more respected and trusted that those who simply follow traditions.  Reflective practitioners are better able to navigate landscapes of all kinds.

As a consumer, how do you consume/read/view the news? Print, digital, radio?

I have a mix of news consumption habits.  I get most of my news online, but I do listen to NPR regularly in the mornings and evenings.  During the day, I dip into Facebook and Twitter feeds, and go directly to sites like the New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC, ProPublica, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post.  I’ll also go to the Twitter feeds of particular people I trust, will use Google News and other aggregators to search for news on particular topics, and do background reading on Wikipedia about people, events, and places that appear in stories.  I’m also a big fan of email newsletters and regularly read daily digests on sub-topics like the media industry, urban planning, criminal justice reform, and U.S. foreign policy.  I don’t do it enough, but I also often seek out English-language reporting from non-U.S. news sources. Most of my news consumption (text, audio, video) happens on my phone or laptop.

What do you think are some of the current challenges facing journalists today?

The biggest challenges are to make sure that journalists:

  • understand the cultures they’re reporting on, including online cultures
  • appreciate the complexities of different communication tools and platforms
  • stay critical and skeptical of both the tools and platforms they use and the assumptions and habits underlying their work
  • understand their public mission and have the courage to resist stories that might draw audiences but not serve public interests
  • can articulate their own practices and explain to others how and why they work
  • read about the history of journalism, read how other journalists write, and read things that have nothing to do with journalism so they can appreciate different human conditions and the contexts in which they’re working

Journalism is not just being able to meet a deadline or tell a compelling story, it’s about making yourself into a lifelong learner who is curious, empathetic, skeptical, and articulate.

What are the challenges facing Annenberg students as they step into the field on how to cover the news and how can they prepare for covering the current political landscape and this particular news cycle?

Same answer as for question 5.

Where do you see the news industry headed in the next four years? Ten years?

I think the integration with technological tools and platforms will only increase in scope and speed.  With these increases, journalists will be under greater pressure to produce world-class, impactful news that helps people come to understand why and how we live together.  This will mean learning to work under tremendously distracting commercial pressures, use but be critical of computational processes, and firmly ground their craft in a public spirit ethic.

I'm an online web producer and writer for the web and editorial team at USC Annenberg. Since joining USC Annenberg in March 2015, I've helped create new websites, update articles, videos and stories for all Journalism and Communication academic program pages, create and populate the editorial...

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