And with more information than ever being shared online at a rapid pace by anyone with an internet connection, this makes it difficult for those trying to stay informed.
This is a problem for journalism, but it is an even bigger problem for society.
Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
In journalist and editor Alan Rusbridger’s new book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now he puts the issue into focus, explaining that he had seen the situation play out online where it “was harder for good information to compete on equal terms with bad” and legitimate reporting was increasingly behind paywalls.
And later, he writes: “This is a problem for journalism, but it is an even bigger problem for society.”
The issue facing news organisations is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the problems it causes are well-established. Simply, misinformation leads to undesirable outcomes.
In economic terms this is known as “information asymmetry” where one party has better information than another leading to misinformed decisions. In other words, access to the truth is critical to how an economy functions.
Market forces usually come up with solutions to this problem pretty quickly. Take real estate for example, where the seller is typically aware of flaws in their home but buyers are not. There is an entire industry of building inspectors, research reports and buyer’s agents to help give purchasers certainty. Similar mechanisms exist for secondhand cars and even for new products, through reviews and comparison websites.
Journalists have typically filled this role in another way for the public, helping sift through the information itself to fill the knowledge gap.
But with sustainable business models for newsrooms still elusive and more people heading to social media for their updates on the world around them, the market is clearly failing. When a news organisation feels the need to update their article for fear of it being taken out of context six years later, there is clearly something wrong.
The risks of this failure aren’t just consumers choosing to buy erectile dysfunction medication on the untrue claim in a Facebook ad that Eddie McGuire endorses it or being lured into losing money because a scammer falsely says mining magnate Andrew Forrest backs an investment scheme.
What is more deeply concerning and potentially less tangible is when citizens make political decisions based on misinformation or misinterpretation, decisions which in turn affect policy-making. Arguably some of the biggest decisions of our era have been plagued with months of skewed and false information shared sometimes maliciously and sometimes unwittingly through social media.
As Rusbridger says in his book: “It is impossible to think of Donald Trump; of Brexit; of Bernie Sanders; of Podemos; of the growth of the far right in Europe; of the spasms of hope and violent despair in the Middle East and North Africa without thinking also of the total inversion of how news is created, shared and distributed.”
There has been some progress on this front with Facebook partnering with third-party fact checkers and Google giving original reporting more prominence in search but there is much more work to do. Part of this is rebuilding trust between the public and news organisations, including by being less partisan and openly admitting to errors when they are made.
The government also has its part to play in addressing some of these issues by looking closely at the competition regulator’s recommendations for cracking down on the tech titans.
Some of these suggestions are low-hanging fruit, such as putting digital media literacy in schools up for consideration when the Australian Curriculum is reviewed in 2020. Not only would this improve the next generation’s ability to interpret and think critically about the information they’ll undoubtedly be bombarded with online, but it would also re-enforce the importance of the pursuit of truth to those who will grow up not knowing a world without social media.
The decision to take down the SBS article attracted criticism from The Spectator conservative columnist Dave Pellowe who had tweeted about the piece on November 12 saying it showed “unusual balance”.
The updated piece added the disclaimer that the retired Monash University researcher who was quoted originally had told News Corp’s Sky News that fuel load was still the core issue for these bushfires.
It also said there had been attempts to contact Packham to find out whether he still refuted the link between climate change and bushfires.
An SBS spokeswoman says the update was simply to “avoid confusion that it was in reference to current bushfires”.
The situation is tricky enough for SBS. But arguably it’s the digital giants who should be making the biggest effort.
Given the high stakes it doesn’t seem to be a big ask that companies with the deepest pockets and biggest audiences are required to make truth a priority.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.