How real news can stand up to disinformation on Facebook

In 2016, more than a quarter of Americans read online stories that were “fake news” — or deliberately false information or propaganda disguised as actual news reporting, researchers found.

The most successful fake election news on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others, another analysis showed.

The overall problem of fake news, however, is much bigger than election interference.

After October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, the top Google News results included links to fake news and conspiracy theories. This also happened in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when a top video on YouTube falsely claimed a student who survived the shooting was a paid actor.

These examples are not outliers. They are part of a well-established handbook for sowing widespread distrust through conspiracy, propaganda and misinformation online.

This problem is especially concerning in light of the fact that nearly three-quarters of Americans access news online through Facebook and Google, according to the Pew Research Center.

This duopoly — and the centralization of information that it creates — is harming our democracy in two fundamental ways.

First, the spread of misinformation on these dominant platforms undermines Americans’ confidence in all news, no matter how credible the source. According to a recent study, trust in the news media has declined significantly over the past year. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are concerned they can no longer distinguish fake news from quality journalism online.

Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, recently described this bleak reality as the disintegration of our “technological and communication infrastructure, the ways that we experience reality, the ways we get news.”

Second, funneling Americans’ access to trustworthy news through two dominant platforms threatens the very existence of our free press.

Last year, Google and Facebook reportedly pulled in more than $42 billion from online ads. That’s more than 60% of all online ad revenue. This heavy thumb on the scales of funding content online is bleeding news publishers dry, while effectively favoring clickbait and hyper-partisan sources over valuable breaking news and investigative reporting.

If this trend continues, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to uncovering corruption, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable and sustaining our democracy.

With little having changed since the 2016 presidential election — and with congressional midterms around the corner — it is essential we safeguard trust and valuable news coverage online so that voters are able to hold elected officials accountable at the polls.

That’s why I have introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. This bill empowers local newspapers to negotiate collectively with the biggest technology platforms to ensure consumers have access to the best journalism possible. It applies to all news publishers, regardless of size, that produce original editorial content with a professional news staff, including digital news publishers.

Today, under antitrust laws, which forbid group boycotts, publishers are prohibited from collectively negotiating standards for improving trust and withholding content from platforms that don’t meet these standards.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act establishes an exemption for this conduct, so long as it directly relates to the quality, accuracy, attribution and functionality of news to the benefit of all news publishers. Without this bill, news publishers — including thousands of local newspapers throughout the country — cannot negotiate with dominant platforms on equal terms.

So, for example, if local publishers formed a coalition to improve attribution to local news on Facebook, such as displaying the news publishers’ logo with each article that appears on Facebook’s News Feed, they could do this without incurring liability under the antitrust laws. If Facebook did not agree to these terms, these publishers could then withhold their content from Facebook under the bill’s narrow exemption.

But it’s important to remember this bill isn’t legislating the outcome of free market negotiations. It’s about making sure news publishers have an equal voice in negotiations to restore trust online.

Our democracy hangs in the balance. It’s critical we get this right.

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