Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for a campaign against fake news.
Its purveyors — largely interested only in getting the most clicks — are defeating the people who are trying to tell the most truth, he told the UK’s Daily Telegraph in an exclusive interview last week.
Fake news is “killing people’s minds in a way,” Cook said.
The worldwide epidemic of fake news requires a crackdown by both government and tech, he said, but care must be taken not to step on the freedoms of speech and the press.
Cook suggested the impact of fake news could be curbed by building public awareness with a massive public service campaign.
Tech can do its part to fight the spread of fake news by creating tools to reduce its volume on the Internet, he added, while government can support the cause by bringing the fight into the classroom.
“Kids will be the easiest to educate,” he told the Telegraph. “At least before a certain age, they are very much in listen and understand [mode], and they then push their parents to act.”
The challenge to Cook or anyone else wishing to crackdown on fake news will be nailing down what exactly “fake news” is.
“‘Fake news’ has gone in six months from a useful description to something that’s absolutely meaningless,” said Dan Kennedy, an associate professor at the school of journalism at Northeastern University.
Fake news originally was the product of bogus news publishers that posted wildly exaggerated or entirely made-up stories to garner clicks just for advertising revenue.
“Now it’s meaningless, because the Trump White House calls anything it doesn’t like ‘fake news,'” Kennedy said.
“What referred to stories that contained misinformation or disinformation is largely a meaningless term,” echoed John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University.
“A number of people have appropriated it to mean news that they don’t like,”
“I don’t know what ‘killing people’s minds’ means,” he added, “but I know fake news is eroding public discourse, and giving people a false impression not only of the news media but also current events.”
Weaponizing Fake News
Language is always in flux, and the meaning of terms can shift, observed Mark Marino, director of the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab at the University of Southern California.
“Right now, the presidential administration is trying to weaponize the term in an attempt to censor the press and create noise to make it difficult for people to critically assess what’s going on,” he said.
Even without that noise, fake news can be difficult to spot.
“It’s comparatively easy to produce something on the Internet with little money and little training that looks almost identical to what major, professional news organizations produce,” Marino said.
“That means that in addition to the usual critical thinking skills of being able to evaluate arguments and evidence, we also need media literacy skills to be able to identify when a news story is from an organization that’s not following professional standards.”
Media literacy skills aren’t the only ones needed for an informed public, suggested NU’s Kennedy.
“Before we can have media literacy, we need to have civic literacy, because people need to understand why this is important in the first place,” he said.
Combating Fake News
What can be done to combat fake news? Both Google and Facebook are making efforts to dam the flow — Google by blocking fake news sites from participating in its advertising platform; Facebook by limiting misinformation on its system.
Enlisting Hollywood in the cause may be another way to squelch fake news.
“A campaign similar to those used for designated drivers and seatbelts, where references were put into scripts of programs to raise awareness of those issues, could be effective,” BU’s Carroll said.
Tim Cook’s concern about the harm fake news can cause is a legitimate one, but the issue could have business implications for Apple, especially if it’s too zealous in its crackdown.
“If it’s seen as interfering with people’s expression or access to information, that’s going to hurt them,” Carroll noted.
On the other hand, Apple could benefit if it should earn a reputation as being a fake-news-free zone.
“Tim Cook’s observation about fake news is right on target,” NU’s Kennedy said.
Further, “Apple News is a real alternative to people who want to have an aggregated news product but want to make sure that it is vetted and verified news,” he pointed out. “There is a business opportunity here for Apple. It has a dog in this race, and it’s an increasingly impressive dog.”