Anyone can post anything they want on social media. There is no rule, no rhyme, no liability, it is, as I’ve said elsewhere, the Wild West. Entirely not regulated, like any some other media sectors are. But this is an oversimplification. While the FCC regulated television and radio and enforced rules like the “fairness doctrine,” newspapers and magazines were essentially self-regulating. How odd, then, that people complained more about the “unfairness” of television and radio, rather than of newspapers and magazines. Does this tell you something?
And look at the diversity we now have – not just the original three major networks in the U.S. delivering news. For decades, it was CBS, NBC, and ABC. We have other networks and cable and satellite and a massive number of websites catering to all sorts of interests – relative to news and opinion. New websites all the time. And people on social media become their own news broadcasters and news sources. More people with a broad spectrum of views getting involved in “sharing” news and articles with friends.
So called “fake news” has been generating great attention and many views. But is “fake news” a term to describe facts and data that are incorrectly stated or reported, or that are fabricated? Or is it a term used in an attempt to discredit a report because someone objects to the viewpoint of the reporter, writer, columnist, or simply doesn’t like the person on social media who passes on the story? While most of us didn’t really know about fake news, social media operators did, and what it meant for them: the more fake news, the more views, equals more advertising income. Think of a tabloid newspaper with what a century ago was called “yellow journalism” – inaccurate or highly exaggerated stories with wild headlines. Those sold newspapers. Now, we’re talking about “selling” circulation on social media.
Think about that. Long ago a politician was said to have remarked, “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right.” In other words, the politician wanted name identification above all else. That’s not always true, with debilitating negative coverage – and with social media and the twenty four hour news cycle, and things going viral, a political figure or public figure could be tarnished, before the truth catches up.
But note — with social media, the more that there is controversy (whether “the story” is correct or truthful, or not), the more there is usage, and usage is the driver of advertising revenue. It doesn’t matter whether the facts are correct, and the posting is the “truth.” One hundred years ago we had, as I just noted, what was called “yellow journalism”; many newspapers were a kind of “National Enquirer” with provocative and misleading headlines and stories of dubious accuracy, full of uncorroborated information, rumors, and innuendo. But they generated readers who bought the newspapers. Those days are, to a great degree, gone. But now we have a new iteration, with the Internet, web sites and social media.
But let’s not label something we don’t like as fake news. Very legitimate news that is accurate also can be re-circulated on social media and drive up numbers. There is a great danger in censorship, because what are the standards?