How We Ended Up Here: A Brief History Of "Fake News", And The Role Of FaceBook

With major media outlets having launched their campaign against fake news, which can be seen in in action in the screengrab below in which ABC News is disputing a news item...

... we wanted to share with our readers an insightful "tweetstorm" by Matt Stoller who goes through the history of not only the so-called "fake news" phenomenon, which is nothing new, but the recent evolution of the "news" business model, to observe how we ended up with Facebook effectively dictating what is and isn't news.

By Matt Stoller:

Fake news was a core concern of New Dealer media reformers. This is part of a statement I found in the Patman archives.

Newspapers owned by reactionary publishers constantly made things up about New Dealers. Like that Congressman didn't pay taxes.

Patman's particular newspaper was called the Paris News. It was, as he put it, 'absentee owned'. This is a core concept.

Absentee ownership meant that the owners didn't pay attention to how their institutions affected people where those owners didn't live.

It didn't matter to a New York news magnate whether info put out by his chain about Paris, TX was true. He didn't live there.

The basic idea behind media and telecom reforms was to keep institutions local, and keep them decentralized.

Multiple structural barriers were organized to preserve truth. Newspaper unions, for one, fought publishers over editorial independence

A diversity of news sources, like union newspapers and newspapers in lots of languages, was another.

The Communications Act of 1934 was a key law to block control of our telephone system by AT&T.

Victor Pickard's ( @VWPickard) book goes into fights at the FCC in the 1940s over the structure of radio and TV (link)

All of these fights created a structure of New Deal news that people think of as objective.

Nostalgia, like 'remember when Walter Cronkite told the truth?' When America was unified. But this was b/c of earlier political fights.

The 1930s to 1970s news industry was structured to avoid fake news. It wasn't totally successful. But some of the protections held.

There were other protections for media more broadly, like fin-syn rules for TV and the antitrust suit against the studios.

There were lots of newspapers for different communities, including ones that were key to the Civil Rights movement.

Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s. Media consolidation, deregulation, attacks on newspaper unions.

Fox News and Rush Limbaugh emerge out of changes in regulatory policy by Reagan and Clinton. Financiers begin newspaper roll-ups.

Newspapers begin falling apart, though the financials don't reflect it yet. 1990s media landscape is insane with conspiracy theories.

In the mid-2000s, Google and Facebook begin their march to monopolizing the ad networks. Google buys Doubleclick.

As corrupted as news has become, it still exists, somewhat. But the platform monopolists begin chewing up all their revenue.

And the greatest absentee owned editor imaginable appears: The Algorithm

The Algorithm is scalable, automated, and seems totally value-neutral. Right? It delivers everything everyone wants.

Facebook and Google slowly become the editor for the planet through The Algorithm. New media outlets live and die by The Algorithm.

But odd problems start cropping up. Facebook's The Algorithm censors Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnam era photo from Norwegian news.

Turns out Facebook is misleading on traffic numbers for major news sites.

Optimization, aka gaming The Algorithm, becomes an industry. This opens the way for modern fake news.

Completely made up, riding on The Algorithm, perhaps foreign propaganda, crops up like barnacles on the bottom of a boat.

This is a function of the centralization of power in the hands of The Algorithm, aka Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.

No matter how competent, no one person can be the editor for all of humanity. The Algorithm is the mother of all absentee ownership.

The response to the 'fake news' panic has been authoritarian. It has been 'why won't Facebook censor things I don't like!?!'

So Facebook announces it will censor. And it may engage in "policy enforcement actions" to cut off $$$ to media (link)

FB acts as a sovereign power unto itself. It outsources censorship to sites like Politifact, a site with clear policy biases.

Hoping that if it does this outsourcing, people won't notice FB's total control over our free speech commons via The Algorithm.

But fundamentally, such control is not consistent with a democracy, with a free press, or with freedom of association.

There are many policy approaches to this problem. But it is not a problem of 'fake news', it is a problem of concentrated monopoly power

Fake news is simply the barnacles that aren't being cleaned out of the system b/c Mark Zuckerberg can't get to them all.

It's worse today, but this is a longstanding issue. Fourteen years ago, it was fake news around the war in Iraq.

What we need to restore democracy is a wholesale anti-monopoly approach to our media ecosystem, starting but not ending w/ the platforms

Communities must have the ability to organize their own public commons for debate and speech, unmediated by private monopolies.

Otherwise, we will not be dealing just with Fake News, but with a Fake Democracy as well. There, that's my tweet storm.