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The end of “Fake on the Internet:” 5 good questions with Caitlin Dewey

The Washington Post’s popular weekly column, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” ended Friday after 19 months of debunking stories about new Oreo flavors, Syrians invading New Orleans, and just about every absurdity in between.

Caitlin Dewey, who wrote the column for the Post’s Intersect blog, explained to readers that the decision to end it was prompted by changes in “the pace and tenor of fake news,” which she said now is often fueled by hate and exploitive entrepreneurs.

The reaction on social media was fast and intense. This week, Dewey answered “5 good questions” from the American Press Institute about her thoughts on tackling fakery on the Internet and what might be next in those efforts.

When you announced last week the end of the “What was fake on the Internet this week” column, it provoked a lot of reaction on Twitter and various blogs. How would you characterize the general theme of the reaction, and did it surprise you?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive and sympathetic, which did surprise me. (Pleasantly!) I don’t think I observed anything particularly novel, but it’s clearly something a lot of people are also observing in their own work. Most of the readers and reporters I heard from said they understood the decision, but they were frustrated or saddened by the environment that precipitated it.

You mentioned as one of the reasons for discontinuing the column your frustration with people whose biases are so strong they simply can’t be swayed by the truth. But studies also show that some people can learn from corrective information. Do you think the column was successful at all in reaching those readers?

Yes! I’m sure it has. I mean, you figure it’s been read by tens of thousands of people over a year and a half — statistically someone had to learn something from it. But my concern was, as time went on, that we weren’t reaching the population of readers who needed this column the most. And that’s what got us thinking that maybe this very formulaic, black-and-white sort of refutation — “no that’s not what happened, THIS is” — is not totally well suited to today’s Internet.

A recent Intersect column outlined six reasons people believe and share fake content as social media users. Do you believe that social media leaders — Facebook and Twitter, mainly — have a responsibility here as well? 

I’d be cautious to attribute too much responsibility to social networks. These tech companies can definitely play a moderate role here — Facebook’s tweaks to the News Feed, and the addition of the hoax tag, are a great example of that. But I’m not sure we want to put technology companies in the position of being fact-checkers or gatekeepers. That seems like a real abdication of responsibility and agency.

Your column typically was written as a roundup of fakery on the Internet, a format you’ve concluded “doesn’t make sense” in the current environment.  Can you describe a format that you think might work in a reincarnation of “What was fake on the Internet this week?”

…I’m not 100 percent convinced that the answer will end up coming from an institution like the mainstream media.

Unfortunately, not yet! Haha. But I’m certainly thinking about it a lot. I mean, these are questions that go way behind one column, to the heart of civil society and civic discourse — we aren’t just trying to figure out how to debunk false information, but how to get very different people to agree on some baseline narrative about the way the world works. How do you do that on the Internet, where so many narratives — of varying truthfulness/legitimacy — are competing against each other? I don’t have an answer to that. And in fact I’m not 100 percent convinced that the answer will end up coming from an institution like the mainstream media.

Imagine you could deputize a squad of social media users to take up the Internet debunking cause. What advice do you have for those who need a kind but effective way to tell Great Aunt Bessie or preteen cousin Brittany to stop sharing fakery through the Internet?

This is actually closer to what we need, I think — people acting as debunkers from within their own social networks and Internet communities. In all likelihood, Great Aunt Bessie and Brittany see you (whoever you are) as way more credible and trustworthy than some disembodied journalist in D.C.

I think it’s important to approach people kindly and respectfully, like you said, and to be sensitive to whatever underlying factors caused them to share the hoax to begin with. If Aunt Bessie forwards a ridiculous chain email about an epidemic of squirrel attacks, for instance, and she has a long-standing fear of squirrels, that’s a totally different conversation than if she just forwards emails by default without checking their source. It’s tempting to dismiss people who share misinformation as dumb or wrong or oblivious, but I suspect understanding the reasons why they believe this stuff is the first step to stopping it.

Follow the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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