Project idea overview:

Much has been said and written on the topic of fake news, and for a good reason. It is one of the most critical social issues of our time. The information age has ushered in a never-ending stream of information from all over the globe available with the click of a button. The torrid pace, the volume, and the dispersion of news sources have meant that we have never been more informed and yet misinformed. Journalistic standards that ensure accuracy have been unable to keep up. News is “broken”, and there is no obvious solution.

Meanwhile, the world has never been more in need of reliable information. Never before has so much of the world population been self-governed and in need of accurate information to have effective democracy. Paradoxically, it is arguable that the most wealthy and powerful have never had so much wealth and power as they do today – so there is a great need for transparent economies to keep them honest.

Topic Summary:

The information age and the rise of fake news have also led to the creation of eccentric groups and subcultures.

People have been quick to lay blame for the cause and creation of fake news. Often, fingers are pointed at special interest groups, lobbyists, radicals/bigots, allegedly corrupt politicians, or dishonest media trolling for clicks. The believers of false information are the pawns that the former prey on to adopt and spread their lies. But dismissing the believers of fake news as “useful idiots” disregards the nuanced and complicated reality of the situation. Commonly held beliefs form the basis for social groups. Groups banded together by common beliefs, true or false, are everywhere. Christians and the biblical stories; Republicans and the belief in limited government and individuality; sports fans and the belief that their team is the best.

Believers in fake news form their own communities too. One example of this is shown in the Netflix documentary Beyond the Curve. The documentary profiles the main people who support and propagate the flat earth theory. Not only does the documentary detail their beliefs, which are elaborate, to explain how the round earth theory is false and how the truth of flat earth has been covered up – it also shows the community of people that has been created around this belief. The flat earth belief is more than just a conspiracy; it also seems like a hobby. It is something that these people enjoy believing in – it makes them interesting, it gives them a sense of belonging and status within the group. The information age has facilitated the spread of this information but also has allowed people to not feel so ostracised by holding these types of beliefs because they can connect with other like-minded people. Within the group, they are respected for their beliefs, and some are heralded as ‘exporters’ of flat earth theory. They host talk shows, sell merchandise, and run conferences. However, some of the believers admit that they could, or would, not stop believing in flat earth regardless of any facts or discoveries – they’re in too deep.

It’s a scary and fascinating fact about human nature that we often prefer to be accepted within a group than to admit truths about the world. Religion has played on this fact for millennia. The flat earth tribe is not the only fake news tribe out there. Although the documentary shows these tribal-like behaviors and refusal to accept reality to get in better standing within the tribe, it stops short of really unpacking this and detailing this subculture as part of the fake news phenomenon. My story will pick up where Beyond the Curve left off.

Story form:

My story will begin with an investigation of a fake news story and attempt to gain access to the community that has spring up in support of this belief. I will focus on this community’s structure and how social pressures form people’s beliefs. I will also interview psychologists and sociologists to make sense of this type of behaviour.

The second part of my story will be a profile of the journalists who focus on combatting fake news and misinformation. Many journalists’ careers have become primarily focused on this arduous mission. I will detail how these journalists go about their work in what must seem like a never-ending game of wack-a-mole as they continually refute an avalanche of misinformation with research and evidence. However, the real challenge for them must come when they present clear proof, and yet it is ineffective in stopping the spread of the particular misinformation. What do these journalists do when people’s tribal nature takes precedent in forming beliefs, and community acceptance supersedes acknowledging reality?

I will have a narrative story structure where I report how these two groups behave: the believers of misinformation and the journalists who are trying to combat misinformation. The scenes I observe and write about will be interlaced with background information and context from a comprehensive study of fake news. In this story, I hope to expose some truths about why misinformation spreads, why people believe it, and what can be done to combat it.

Primary and secondary sources & human sources:

My sources will primarily be the people in these two groups and the material they produce. The first person I will contact is Craig Silverman. On his website, Silverman describes himself as: “an award-winning author and journalist and one of the world’s leading experts on online misinformation, fake news, and the attention economy.” He is a media editor for BuzzFeed news covering the global fake news and misinformation beat.

I will also contact Jane Lytvynenko from BuzzFeed. Lytvynenko is a reporter and covers the fake news beat.

Secondary sources will be used to provide background on my characters and provide greater context on the topic of fake new.

See the bibliography below for a list of the sources I will begin with.   

Access to principal sources:

Gaining access to sources may prove to be the greatest challenge for my MRP. It is critical for my story and yet might prove difficult to gain the trust of fake news believers so that I can observe them.

I hope that Silverman or Lytvynenko will lead me to more sources by directing me to a community of fake news and refer me to other journalists who work the fake news beat. They could also become main characters in my story.

I was in contact with Lytvynenko in December regarding another story, and she was willing to be interviewed. 

My story idea and structure will start to take shape with these first interviews and continue to change based off what my investigation yields. I will be prepared to adapt the story focus and narrative accordingly.  

Reporting and production schedule:

Step 1: Make contacts with journalists on the fake news beat (July 8 – 15)

•    The first step is to reach out to as many journalists as I can and schedule interviews

•    Keen attention will be paid to finding more sources

Step 2: Conduct first interviews with sources (July 15 – Aug. 5)

Step 3: Write a story outline with scene ideas (July 29 – Aug. 7)

Step 4: Meet with advisor (Aug. 8)

Step 5: Rewrite outline & rewrite reporting and production schedule (Aug. 8 – 12)

Step 6: Write MRP extended treatment (Aug. 12- 30) 

Bibliography and Sources:

  1. Craig Silverman. BuzzFeed editor.
  2. Jane Lytvynenko. BuzzFeed reporter.
  3. Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger
  4. Beyond the curve Netflix documentary
  5. Enlightenment now by Steven Pinker
  6. Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation by Craig Silverman

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