Craigslist Founder: Fake News A “Human Problem” Not Technology Problem

WASHINGTON – Craig Newmark

Founder of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation, said that one of the best ways technology companies and fact-checking organizations can combat “fake news” websites is to alert advertisers to take their money elsewhere.

As Facebook and Google attempt to find ways to crackdown on fake news, Newmark emphasized that fake news is a “human problem,” not a technology problem.

In addition to fact checking and weeding out fake news, Newmark, who donated $1 million to the investigative journalism organization ProPublica, said he is “concerned” about protecting journalists from harassment and bullying.

“We need to find ways to protect journalists from harassment, bullying, from frivolous lawsuits and sometimes from violence, because this has graduated to violence in a few cases and there are some people, some journalists, who are good at defending themselves, often because they know the forensics required to do the right investigation,” Newmark said during the Inaugural McGowan Forum on Ethics in Leadership at the National Archives.

“That’s what happens, let’s say, when the journalist involved is a technology journalist, but, for the most part, if you’re the subject of a lot of death threats and so on that can kind of make it a really bad day for you. The idea, though, is to do constructive smart things to help make journalism great again, which is to help restore journalism to being the immune system of democracy,” he added.

Newmark was asked how he thinks the public’s trust in the media could be restored.

“Since I’m Mr. Positive, before I focused on the elements of trustworthy journalism – that is commit to a code of ethics and stick with it and then to get some help protecting your people – but the fake news industry, whether it’s sites which are there only to produce fake news or deceptive news or if it has to do with news organizations that produce a lot of deceptive news, but also some real stuff, the people who might have the best idea, like the folks at sleeping giants, what they’re saying is that ‘hey, ad networks and advertisers, if you know a site is producing deceptive material, fake news, don’t put your ads there’ because fake news sites, whether in whole or in part, rely, in large part, on advertising revenue to exist,” he said.

“This kind of thing is starting. There is nothing to announce about it, in part because these people, especially as they do social network analysis of what the problem is in a deep way, actually have found themselves in some physical danger. But the idea is that this is a thing. It is starting and it ties into the networks of fact checkers and so on and the idea is that, if you’re an advertiser, you don’t want your ads to be associated with deceptive or completely dishonest news. You may not want it to be associated with news of a racist or misogynist nature and that was a news item days ago regarding Facebook and Google,” he added.

Newmark continued, “So, this is beginning to be a thing. These are difficult problems and, again, while they’re partly technology problems, they’re still mostly human problems, because we have seen that when fake news sites are sometimes deprived of that revenue, they complain and they’re pretty well funded and have few scruples. There is hope, but it means the whole industry has to act together to provide the least good targets for bad actors.”

Newmark said it’s “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” – a lesson he first learned in Sunday school.

“So instead of complaining about fake news for one reason or another, I would try to help people who I saw were doing a good job do an even better job without going on at very tedious length. There’s the folks at the Trust Project doing basic work on ethics trying to figure out what it means when we’re talking about trustworthy journalism. To enforce that, I’m supporting the international fact-checking network out of Poynter Institute and also working with groups like the First Draft Coalition,” Newmark said.

“The deal with these is that no one is going to be an arbiter of truth, it’s just that a news organization can say, ‘hey we’re going to adhere to these ethical rules, rules of trustworthy behavior and then the fact checkers can do something to keep them honest.’ Then I can talk to my technology fellows because, you know, we’re pretty slow to really understand a problem that’s not a technology problem and the problems of journalism are human problems, not technology problems,” he added.

Newmark said it takes “a while” for technology companies to react to problems like fake news.

“It takes us a while to get it, it takes us a while to react and, frankly, speaking with bitter experience, it takes us a long time to understand the need to do good communications and even PR about it. I can say unequivocally that the technology platforms have gotten the message and, as a class, I guess, we understand what we don’t know and we’re now taking actions to address it, but it’s a big human problem and it will take a while,” he said. “There are other issues too. I’m very concerned that bad actors attack journalists primarily through harassment and bullying, that kind of thing, so I’m starting to chat very quietly with news organizations about them protecting themselves and each other and that’s a big deal too.”

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