Thanks to a perfect storm of political rancor, social media algorithms, and malicious actors, fake news has become a major challenge for American democracy.
Many researchers and journalists have proposed policies and interventions to combat fake news, including those as summarized in recent overviews by Brookings, BBC, the New York Times, Forbes, and the Washington Post.
Here are commonly proposed solutions:
The news industry needs to do all possible to define and promote honest, fair, professional journalism. Providing more background information and transparency enhances legitimacy of the industry.
Simultaneously, the industry needs to quickly and effectively identify and debunk fake news (easier said than done). The way fake news is corrected often matters: for example, researchers have shown that video often works better than text, repeating the fake news can unintentionally reinforce it, and partisan voices correcting the news (Republicans debunking conservative news, Democrats debunking liberal news) is most effective.
The government needs to value and promote a free and fair press. Government programs should be careful not to censor nor constrain journalists, and should include programs to support and protect quality journalism. Since journalism and government are often (by design) at odds, support for journalism needs to be codified in law.
In addition, government bodies should identify and censure organizations promoting fake news. In the case of hostile activities by foreign actors, government should aggressively identify and sanction malicious entities working to undermine American trust in the media.
Technology companies, especially social media companies, need to be strict and consistent in enforcing rules about malicious or fake accounts, such as in Twitter’s recent purge of thousands of accounts. In addition, companies require improved systems and algorithms for accurate and fair identification and removal of fake news. Technology firms have made great progress in combatting spam and demarcating pornography online. Similar progress is required for fake news.
Simultaneously, technology companies need to review their business models, particularly with respect to online advertising, to make sure that those purveying fake news are not financially rewarded for information going viral.
There are other specific steps which would also be useful. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests requiring social media companies to provide an API to their news algorithms. This would protect both IP and user personal identification, but allow third parties to monitor how the platform might be used for malicious intent.
Educational institutions — from kindergarten through university — need to expose students to the challenges of fake news, and train students to be sophisticated and informed consumers of news. This can happen in classes specifically designed for news literacy, but also any class demanding research, analysis, and presentation of ideas.
Individuals need to recognize that the news environment is hostile, there are objectively better and worse sources of information, and it is everyone’s responsibility to enhance their own media literacy. Two good initial steps are to work to diversify the news sources you rely on, and to understand the skepticism and effort required to be an honest, productive consumer of news.