Detroit — Fake news is disrupting digital media, but it’s not entirely up to credible news agencies to debunk falsehood spewed on social platforms, according to the CEO of The New York Times Co.
Speaking at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon on Monday, Mark Thompson opened a 30-minute talk touching on his newspaper’s relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, and how Trump’s sometimes fallacious Twitter remarks blur the line between truth and lies.
Trump’s false tweets about dwindling circulation at The New York Times and voter fraud, among others, should be remembered when combatting fake news, according to Thompson.
“As we’ve seen, Mr. Trump does it himself,” Thompson said. “Any proposed solution or mitigation to the issue of fake news must recognize the reality that the next occupant of the Oval Office is himself a seasoned practitioner of it. And it seems unlikely that any discouragement of fake news is going to emanate from there.”
Recently decried as an “epidemic” by Hillary Clinton, fake news stories were most recently responsible for pizza parlors in New York and Washington, D.C., receiving threats after social media users connected the pizzerias to a hoax involving Clinton and a false child sex ring.
The made up story resulted in one man firing a rifle inside the Washington, D.C., pizza parlor when he showed up to investigate the conspiracy for himself.
But “Pizzagate” is “one drop in what’s become a springtime flood of false information,” he said.
“This is not a battle between left and right,” Thompson said. “It’s a battle between facts and lies.”
And it is a problem fortified in a digital age, Thompson said. As consumers use Facebook, Google and Twitter as primary news sources, the responsibility to deliver facts rather than fiction has started to shift.
The solution isn’t a set of filters and algorithms, though.
“Censorship is always worse than the disease it’s set to cure,” he said.
Thompson called on social media and search engine companies to take responsibility for the recent proliferation of fake news. Companies such as Facebook and Google — which Thompson said were his company’s main competitors — must do more to sustain “real” journalism.
He also placed some burden on consumers.
To start, they can stop turning to Facebook as their primary news source.
“Without transparency and accountability, it’s impossible to recommend that anyone, particularly any young person, should get their news entirely from a source whose editorial choices and rankings are arrived at secretly,” Thompson said, referring to Facebook’s intricate filtering algorithms.
He compared the site to a grocery store where products don’t have nutrition information, and the store owners take no responsibility for the quality of the produce.
Why would anyone shop there, Thompson asked.
In a Nov. 12 Facebook post, founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people. Assuming that people understand what is important in their lives and that they can express those views has driven not only our community, but democracy overall. Sometimes when people use their voice though, they say things that seem wrong and they support people you disagree with ... Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic.”
Thompson said this relies on the social “community” to sift through fact and fiction.
Social media is a tool, but consumers must expose themselves to multiple credible sources of news, he said.
“What we stand for now more than ever is tough-minded, independent journalism, edited and delivered without fear or favor,” Thompson said. “We believe in the opposite of fake news.”
As local legacy papers cut budgets and faulty online sites spring up in their wake, it’s on the American people to change the tide, he said.
“If you want real journalism, you as a consumer will have to pay for it,” he said. “Real journalism is vital to our democracy, and it has to be paid for. If not, it will largely disappear ... If you as a citizen are worried about fake news, put your money where your mouth is and pay for the real thing.”