Imagine waking up one morning, as the first light of the morning washes away the darkness of your room. You, groggy-eyed, performing your daily ritual of taking updates from your mobile. And after you have read a few news bytes and smiled at a couple of memes, you stumble upon a piece of a forwarded message on Whatsapp telling how you died yesterday.
No, you’re not dreaming and the piece of news is not something just a prank from your friend. It is right there. Staring at your face.
That’s what exactly happened with Rahul Upadhyay earlier this year. He was having his morning tea when he got a call telling him he was dead. A friend called him to tell that a message about his death was circulating on Social Media. More amused than worried, he asked his friend to forward that message to him. The next moment he was reading that message. It had his picture with a marigold garland around his neck with a tagline saying…
“One more life lost to Jihadis. Blood for Blood.”
Living in Kasganj, a city in India, with a demography finely balanced between Hindu and Muslim Population — something which disruptors of peace often target — it didn't take Rahul more than a second to realize the explosion this message can create. An explosion with his name and fame on it.
An explosion which can kill people. And just because of one item of news. Fake News.
Welcome to the world we live in today, a world of fake news.
Fake news is a concept that used to evoke memories of April Fool’s day in our heads. One day in the year when we would expect most surreal of the news landing on the front pages of the major newspapers. The best ones used to be those which, through smart topic selection and a bit of intelligent writing, would make us believe in something which would make us laugh later. Wondering how did we fall for this! And it used to amuse us.
It was just a day of harmless joking.
But now in today's world where every news is potentially a fake news. Where you can’t tell white from black, truth from fiction. Where Whatsapp Forwarded Messages are picked up by major news channels and televised as Breaking News — without confirming the validity of such news. When the news channel which used to be the shrine of information focus on sensationalism and yellow journalism as their guiding principle. When objective news doesn't exist, when every news is a breaking news, and when you can't distinguish between what is fact and what is fiction, all disguised as believable honest news. In such scenario, the Fake News don’t amuse us anymore.
A couple of months back I ran into one of my friends’ from my school days. Neighbours since the day we started school, we had always been together till we passed out from the school and when our different academic aspirations took us to different cities. But as good friends always do, we always found ways to stay in touch.
In Delhi for a business meeting, I called her up and we decided on a lunch the next day.
This had been the longest time (close to two years) since we last met so we both were eager to meet and catch up on the lost times. As I was navigating through the crawling Delhi Traffic I remembered the last time we had met. I remembered she mentioning about professional challenges that were keeping her more than busy. She ran a small HR agency which even after two years of hard work, never really took off. I also remembered she had mentioned something about venturing into an online business. I was eager to know the developments on that front.
At lunch, she told me that she about the online business. She was handling multiple Facebook pages and had developed a thriving business model by monetising the content in those pages. Also, she told me, that she recently launched a Hindi news website which was doing well. As I had the rest of the day free, I agreed when she told me to join her at her new office.
After lunch, I landed in her small office in a nondescript building in the suburbs of the city. In that cramped one-room office, were sitting a bunch of young boys and girls. Their eyes twinkling with the blue lights of the screen. Their goal to curate (or create) Posts for her Facebook pages and the News Website.
Such pages are hit with today’s youth.
Small posts that don’t’ take too much time are idle with the generation that wants everything in small bytes. “Five-hundred thousands of likes,” she said as she showed me a post on one of her pages that shares memes and sarcastic comments.
“But how do you make money?” I asked to which she replied that money can be made through product placements within the content and other similar strategies.
Then I took a look at the news website she was mentioning.
Though I didn’t tell her, I cringed the moment I skimmed through the face news item. The news explained in rich detail about the personal life of a Bollywood actress and the news of her yet another affair with a famous director. Accompanying the news was her scantily dressed picture that left very little to the imagination.
“How do you collect news?” I asked though I already knew the answer.
“We curate,” she said, explaining that team searches for the most interesting news and with some paraphrasing place them here. She then uses the Facebook Pages with large audiences to promote such pages. She stopped for a moment and then smirked, “What we can't create, we create.”
What she meant but didn't say was, "We create Fake News."
The focus of these websites is very clear. To grab the attention of today’s society who is already struggling with attention deficit. I stole a glance at one of the other screens. It had a catchy title and writing format that appeared to be like news. And a language clearly aimed towards sensationalism, rather than objective reporting. And a writing structure that sensational news is what they have to produce, and it doesn’t matter if it is fake.
Power of Incentive.
Incentives govern human behaviour. From the moment we wake up in the morning till the time we close our eyes to sleep, it is the incentive that decides and dictates every act, every decision we make.
If not for the money (or creative satisfaction), we won’t go to the work. We don’t eat that extra piece of butter cookie because we want to get fit. Sometimes we walk from the bus stop to our home, to save money. At others we pay extra hundred bucks for the UBER so that we don’t miss a critical interview. It is all governed by incentive. The world is governed by incentives.
In mid-nineties when seat belts were introduced it was expected to bring down the number of casualties due to road accidents. And it did bring down the number of drivers dying to such accidents. But the overall number of casualties increased due to the increased number of pedestrian deaths. With improved safety features the drivers had the incentive to drive faster with a decreased risk of suffering a fatal injury.
That’s the second order effect of incentive which authorities didn't foresee while enforcing seat-belts laws.
Change incentive, change people's behavior.
Fake Journalism on Facebook = Fakebook Journalism.
Facebook don’t incentivise people to do objective reporting. Facebook rewards stories with most activity — most likes, and comments and shares. So once people figured out the incentive structure, they promptly responded by providing more content with a "potential" to be shared. Rather than that brought out the truth.
This increased activity helps both — Facebook and the Pages that provide content. More number of engaged people on Facebook, allows Mark Zuckerberg to charge higher advertisement fees from the advertisers. Similarly, the content creators leverage more shares through affiliate marketing that weaves ads into the individual stories through delicate and thoughtful product placements.
The itch to provide sensationalism content was always there. Time and again, traditional news media has resorted to Yellow Journalism to promote the readership. The top two Newspapers in India have a supplement section that is filled with Spicy Page Three stories accompanied by colorful images that appeal to our baser instincts.
The Spanish-American War of Eighteen Ninety-Eight is a black mark on journalism that illustrates how low journalism can go to sell papers. William Randolph Hearst, the owner of The New York Journal was involved in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and saw the conflict as a way to sell papers. These newspapers ran articles of a sensationalist nature and created a whole propaganda that strangled the true spirit of journalism and focused on one goal — to sell more, doesn’t matter how.
But Facebook, by providing every one individual on this planet a “potential” to reach every other, has taken this focus at another level.
A much more dangerous impact of Fakebook Journalism is its ability to drive a propaganda.
Facebook analysing our interests and customising our news-feed is an ancient fact now. Every one of us knows it. But what is not much knows is its second-order effects. And how adversely Facebook is impacting our behavior, our sub-conscious thinking.
In India it doesn't matter if you have any interest in politics are not, you'll have a view on Narendra Modi — the current prime minister of India. Through his radical decision making (and in some cases, not), he has divided the country into two distinct groups — those who support him, and those who don't. Even people who never follow politics will have a strong point of view when it comes to Narendra Modi.
And Facebook through its analytics, is ensuring that the gulf widens even more. I found out this when I saw the Facebook feed of two people who are very active in sharing news about him. One of my uncles, while making a point of view on how well the PM was doing showed me his Facebook feed filled with the stories singing praises of the Prime Minister. To validate this I checked the feed of one of my other filled, and the story here was completely opposite. His entire feed shouted the negative impact of the current leadership.
But I am sure, if I checked the news from both the feeds, half of them must be fake news, driven by propaganda, rather than objective reporting.
The human mind can handle only so many things at one time. It has a limited attention power. We can’t assess every piece of news every time. Our conscious mind can handle four to seven things simultaneously, the rest is relegated to the sub-consciousness. And our sub-consciousness is a pattern-seeking engine evolved through eons of evolution period. It makes snap judgments, more often without us even knowing.
The Cambridge Analytica case illustrates this point where, allegedly, the Facebook feed was used to swing the voting behavior of the US Population. And Facebook, through its single laser-like focus on keeping us on its website, (it is its incentive) is messing up our sub-consciousness — big time.
The News Content Platform — Medium vs Facebook
No market can be a completely free market unless it deals only with commodities where the quality points are etched in stone. Otherwise, we need a regulatory agency which polices the quality and delivery of the products. And Facebook News Market is like this — without proper regulation and perverse incentives its effort to create a powerful Facebook Journalism into a low-standard Fakebook Journalism.
And I think that’s the key differentiator that any News Content Platform should focus on in creating a better News Platform than Facebook.
Is Medium the one? I don't know yet. But what I can see is that Medium doesn't have the incentives which Facebook has and depends on for its revenue. It's not dependent on the advertising the way Facebook has. Its structure is different, more relevant than Facebook to become the online platform this world needs.
Facebook, because of its inherent structure, is (and will continue to) find it difficult to do so. For the simple reason of cross-incentives between what it’s trying to achieve and how it’s structured. And until then this conflict is resolved, it will not be able to establish itself as a successful news platform which it’s so badly trying to create.