Media Structures & Regulations

Issues ››› Media Structures & Regulations
  • Experts Explain Why Google, Facebook, And The Media's Approaches To Combating Fake News Are Flawed

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, professors from Harvard and Northeastern University argued that tech giants and social media platforms such as Google and Facebook are not taking necessary steps to stem the spread of fake news online, such as less prominently displaying potential fake news stories. The op-ed also suggested that media outlets stop repeating false claims in headlines.

    Facebook, with its algorithm that allows fake news stories to go viral, and Google, with its advertising service that continues to fund multiple fake news purveyors, have become two of the largest platforms on which fake news stories and their purveyors spread and grow. Although they have taken some steps to address the issue, such as recruiting fact-checkers, the platforms still continue to host fake news. And media outlets, some of which have been recruited by Facebook to fact-check potential fake news stories, can inadvertently spread fake news by repeating dubious or false claims in their headlines -- a practice with which many have struggled.

    In their May 8 op-ed, Harvard professor Matthew Baum and Northeastern University professor David Lazer -- who recently co-authored a report on combating fake news that made several suggestions for stemming its proliferation -- wrote that “the solutions Google, Facebook and other tech giants and media companies are pursuing aren’t in many instances the ones social scientists and computer scientists are convinced will work.” The article cited research to explain that “the more you’re exposed to things that aren’t true, the more likely you are to eventually accept them as true.” Instead, they urged the platforms to “move suspect news stories farther down the lists of items returned through search engines or social media feeds.” They added that while “Google recently announced some promising steps in this direction,” such as “responding to criticism that its search algorithm had elevated to front-page status some stories featuring Holocaust denial,” “more remains to be done.” The professors also called on “editors, producers, distributors and aggregators” to stop “repeating” false information, “especially in their headlines,” in order to be “debunking the myth, not restating it.” From the op-ed:

    We know a lot about fake news. It’s an old problem. Academics have been studying it — and how to combat it — for decades. In 1925, Harper’s Magazine published “Fake News and the Public,” calling its spread via new communication technologies “a source of unprecedented danger.”

    That danger has only increased. Some of the most shared “news stories” from the 2016 U.S. election — such as Hillary Clinton selling weapons to Islamic State or the pope endorsing Donald Trump for president — were simply made up.

    Unfortunately — as a conference we recently convened at Harvard revealed — the solutions Google, Facebook and other tech giants and media companies are pursuing aren’t in many instances the ones social scientists and computer scientists are convinced will work.

    We know, for example, that the more you’re exposed to things that aren’t true, the more likely you are to eventually accept them as true. As recent studies led by psychologist Gordon Pennycook, political scientist Adam Berinsky and others have shown, over time people tend to forget where or how they found out about a news story. When they encounter it again, it is familiar from the prior exposure, and so they are more likely to accept it as true. It doesn’t matter if from the start it was labeled as fake news or unreliable — repetition is what counts.

    Reducing acceptance of fake news thus means making it less familiar. Editors, producers, distributors and aggregators need to stop repeating these stories, especially in their headlines. For example, a fact-check story about “birtherism” should lead by debunking the myth, not restating it. This flies in the face of a lot of traditional journalistic practice.

    [...]

    The Internet platforms have perhaps the most important role in the fight against fake news. They need to move suspect news stories farther down the lists of items returned through search engines or social media feeds. The key to evaluating credibility, and story placement, is to focus not on individual items but on the cumulative stream of content from a given website. Evaluating individual stories is simply too slow to reliably stem their spread.

    Google recently announced some promising steps in this direction. It was responding to criticism that its search algorithm had elevated to front-page status some stories featuring Holocaust denial and false information about the 2016 election. But more remains to be done. Holocaust denial is, after all, low-hanging fruit, relatively easily flagged. Yet even here Google’s initial efforts produced at best mixed results, initially shifting the denial site downward, then ceasing to work reliably, before ultimately eliminating the site from search results.

    [...]

    Finally, the public must hold Facebook, Google and other platforms to account for their choices. It is almost impossible to assess how real or effective their anti-fake news efforts are because the platforms control the data necessary for such evaluations. Independent researchers must have access to these data in a way that protects user privacy but helps us all figure out what is or is not working in the fight against misinformation.

  • Sinclair Broadcast Is Purchasing Tribune Media. Here's A Short History Of Its Right-Wing Politics.

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country's largest operator of local television stations, has announced it will buy Tribune Media. Sinclair and its affiliates have a history of airing conservative-leaning reporting and commentary, and its executives have donated to Republicans and Republican causes. The company also has ties to President Donald Trump and his administration, has covered him very favorably during his presidential campaign, and recently hired one of his former aides as an analyst.

  • The Trump Administration Just Helped A Pro-Trump Media Empire Grow

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Thanks to the deregulatory efforts of President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Committee, the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group announced today that it will purchase dozens of televisions stations across the country, allowing the company to spread its conservative programming to new markets and consolidate the ownership of broadcast stations in fewer hands.

    Sinclair has entered into an agreement to purchase Tribune Media Group, which owns 42 television stations in 33 markets, along with cable, digital, and real estate assets, according to a press release from the companies. Given Sinclair’s existing slate of 173 television stations in 81 markets and its national news operation, the combined broadcast company will become the largest provider of local TV news in the country.

    The move comes at an opportune time if Sinclair hopes to capitalize on recent shakeups at Fox News, with some speculating that the company could even hire Bill O’Reilly in an effort to build a conservative rival to that network.

    The purchase would have been impossible if Trump’s newly appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, had not rolled back a key Obama administration regulation that had prevented Sinclair from further expansion. Pai’s actions will allow a stalwart conservative media mogul to acquire more power.

    Sinclair is helmed by longtime chairman David Smith, the son of the network’s founder, who with his family has heavily funded Republican causes. Smith has wielded his media company in support of his conservative ideology, using the stations “to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush,” according to The New York Times.

    Indeed, every presidential election since that era has featured at least one controversy involving Sinclair’s open support for the Republican nominee.

    In 2004, the network ordered its stations to pre-empt regular programming in order to broadcast a documentary that smeared Sen. John Kerry’s (D-MA) war record. Following a massive grass-roots advertiser boycott, Sinclair backed off its original plan, instead airing a 30-minute special that featured portions of the documentary.

    In 2008, in the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, Sinclair aired a conservative group’s advertisement linking then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers. CNN and Fox News both declined to run the ad.

    In 2012, the network was back in the spotlight after its stations in Florida and Ohio ran an election special that predominantly smeared Obama.

    And in late 2016, Sinclair reportedly agreed to broadcast its “Trump interviews across the country without commentary” using its “television stations across the country in many swing states” in a deal with the Trump campaign for more access. Sinclair ended up with 15 “exclusive” interviews with Trump, “including 11 during the final three months of the campaign in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio,” and 20 more with top Trump surrogates. In addition, “news stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a ‘must-run’ basis,” according to The Washington Post.

    Sinclair has also garnered attention for “its refusal to broadcast an episode of ‘Nightline’ devoted to reciting the names of every member of the military killed in action in Iraq” and for “instruct[ing] anchors to read statements supporting Mr. Bush and his administration’s efforts to fight terrorism” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    Sinclair’s original news and public-affairs programming has featured several prominent conservative reporters and commentators. These include Mark Hyman, a top Sinclair executive and conspiracy theorist who provides right-wing commentary for the network; Armstrong Williams, a top advisor to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign who is best known for having received payments from the Bush administration to promote its policies without disclosing that detail in his media commentary; former Trump White House aide Boris Epshteyn; and Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter with a lengthy record of shoddy, inaccurate reporting who has pushed a bizarre conspiracy theory that the government hacked her home electronics. The company will also distribute a TV show from the conservative website DailyMail.com.

    Sinclair’s conservative programming bent has a lot of impact because of the concentration of its stations in presidential swing states. The Tribune purchase will give the network more influence, as Tribune’s television portfolio includes stations in states with high political value, like Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, and Ohio.

    When Trump seeks re-election in 2020, he will be able to count on the support of a massive network of television stations helmed by a conservative who owes his company’s latest growth to the president.

  • Murdoch Is Reportedly Advising Trump While DOJ Investigates Fox

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Fox News owner and CEO Rupert Murdoch is reportedly advising President Donald Trump on a near-daily basis at the same time as the Justice Department is investigating his company, an ethical breach that could undermine the credibility of the inquiry.

    The Justice Department is currently engaged in a wide-ranging investigation of Fox News. The inquiry includes a review of the network’s “settlements made with women who alleged sexual harassment by former Fox News boss Roger Ailes,” as well as “possible misconduct by Fox News personnel” over a period of years, and has grown to include the United States Postal Inspection Service, which has jurisdiction over some financial crimes, according to CNN.

    The investigation is complicated by the ongoing relationship between Murdoch and Trump. “The president speaks to Murdoch now almost every day,” with Murdoch advising Trump on an array of foreign and domestic policy issues, according to a report by The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman. According to Haberman, the Fox chief also regularly talks to Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

    The situation raises questions about whether Trump or his subordinates are communicating with the Justice Department about the Fox investigation, according to Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose specialty is government ethics. “Are they monitoring or attempting to influence that investigation, or is DOJ able to act independently in its investigation of a company owned by a friend of the President?” she wrote in an email to Media Matters.

    “This [White House] isn't abiding by the same limits on WH-DOJ communications as previous administrations,” she added, pointing out that White House officials reportedly asked the FBI and other agencies in February to rebut media reports about communications between Russians and Trump associates. As CNN noted at the time, “Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.”

    Communications between the White House and the DOJ “regarding pending or potential criminal or civil investigations or cases” are restricted in order to maintain DOJ’s independence under a 2009 memorandum that is still in force.

    Trump and Murdoch have a long and complicated relationship that has metamorphosed as Trump rose to power and became potentially useful for Murdoch’s goal of expanding his media holdings.

    They have known each other for decades, but historically disliked one another, with Murdoch reportedly describing Trump as a “phony.” During early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, Murdoch repeatedly criticized Trump’s comments about immigrants and reportedly pushed his media outlets to scrutinize the candidate.

    But once it became clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee, Murdoch turned Fox into an unrelenting pro-Trump propaganda outlet in order to ensure what New York magazine termed “an open line to the new administration” if Trump won. They also repeatedly met during and after the campaign.

    On Thursday, Murdoch introduced Trump as “my friend” during an event celebrating U.S.- Australian relations and commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. In turn, Trump bragged about donating to the American Australian Association after entreaties from Murdoch, commenting: “Now I realize that was money well spent. That's right. Right, Rupert?”

    That friendship has been potentially lucrative for Murdoch’s media empire. Murdoch has for decades opposed federal regulations that aim to prevent the consolidation of too much media power in too few hands, and in Trump, he may have found a president willing to allow him to expand his empire even further.

    Soon after his election, Trump reportedly asked Murdoch for a list of potential nominees for Federal Communications Commission chairman. Trump’s selection, Ajit Pai, is a fierce opponent of the regulations that have capped the expansion of Murdoch’s companies. Pai’s FCC has already overturned an Obama-era rule that had blocked Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations from trying to buy Tribune Media’s 42 television stations. Further relaxing of regulations could allow Murdoch to purchase newspapers across the country as well.

    Fox News has previously been quick to decry the appearance of impropriety when investigations were both led by and targeted Democrats. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the network’s hosts and guests frequently suggested that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch were refusing to prosecute Hillary Clinton for political reasons.

    “The president has made it quite clear to Attorney General Loretta Lynch that he, he does not want any prosecution of Hillary Clinton, or any investigation into the Clinton Foundation,” said Bill O’Reilly a week before Election Day. “Mrs. Lynch got the message.”