We are just out of the field on a flash poll in the U.S. taken last week, with 1,000 members of the general population and an oversample of 113 Silicon Valley-based tech employees on the impact of fake news on trust in mainstream media. The sad conclusion that has been drawn by a majority of Americans is that fake news is created by the media with a motive, destruction of political opponents. The logical end point is establishment of echo chambers, in which one reads only that which one agrees with. It is the end of the town square that allowed for the discussion of issues based on mutually agreed facts.
Here are the key findings of the study:
- Fake news is decreasing trust in traditional news organizations. Thirty-six percent said that their trust has decreased “a lot,” 26 percent said trust has decreased “a little.” The biggest decline is among Republicans, with 49 percent saying that their trust has decreased “a lot” and 25 percent saying trust has decreased “a little,” for a total of 74 percent. Contrast this to Democrats with a decline of 50 percent, with 22 percent.
- The most popular definition of fake news is “sloppy or biased reporting by news organizations” (47 percent), followed by an “insult being over-used to discredit news stories that people do not like” (39 percent). This has a political tinge…Republicans are much more inclined to believe that there is biased reporting (57 percent) than Democrats (38 percent), while Democrats are inclined to believe that fake news is a term used to discredit certain stories (47 percent) than Republicans (32 percent).
- Fake News is changing consumption behaviors. Over half (51 percent) said they are now more careful about where they get news. They are also fact-checking and verifying sources more than ever before. Nearly a quarter of respondents said it has made them doubt the truth of almost every news story they see.
- Despite protestations to the contrary, a near majority believe that social platforms are media companies. This pertains especially to Twitter, which is seen by nearly a 5 to 1 margin as more media than technology company, and to a lesser degree, Facebook. And more than half of our respondents blame social platforms for spreading fake news.
- The most frequently proposed remedies include large fines against companies that publish fake news, requirements to label the source of content (earned and paid), requiring companies to screen for fake news and educating the public to distinguish falsehood from truth.
In Plato’s “Republic,” there is the famous Allegory of the Cave, in which Socrates speaks with Plato’s older brother, Glaucon. “Let me show you in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. Behold, human beings living in an underground cave…they have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move and can see only before them…they see only their own shadows or the shadows of one another…to them, the truth would literally be nothing but the shadows of the images…What will naturally follow if the prisoner is released? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?“
We have locked ourselves into a cave of our own making. We have become tribal and defensive. The mainstream media is categorized as elitist and politicized, unable to carry out its vital role of truth-telling as the fourth estate in global governance. We opt instead for opinion based on personal experience, using the social platforms as equivalent or superior forms of communication. Given this environment, business needs to take control of its own story, with every company becoming a media company. The employees become the most important audience and then most credible spokespeople, empowered to speak on behalf of the company to friends, family and customers. In so doing, we can reverse this inexorable slide toward judgment based on passion instead of fact.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.