Podcast: Finding the truth in an era of 'fake news'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans feel less informed today, even though we have access to more information than at any other time in history. What’s the disconnect?

If you ask Matt Jordan, it’s all about algorithms. Jordan is an associate professor of media studies in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and studies "fake news" and misinformation. He joins the Democracy Works podcast this week to discuss the role of social media in a democracy.

While many social media sites claim to be democratic, Jordan argues that the opposite is happening.

“What we're getting more often than not with algorithms in order to get us to interact with these media, are feedback loops,” Jordan said. “They [these media] can make or break content based on whatever they set their news feed to and it does not mean we’re going to have the kind of ongoing conversation we need for a thriving democracy.”

Jordan also studied the history of the term “fake news” and found that it dates back the 1800s and the era of muckrakers, and their efforts to call out the way that large news institutions were providing overly favorable coverage to corporations who subsidized them.

“'Fake news' became something that progressives and socialist journalists were using to decry the kind of corporate, for-profit news of the 19th century,” Jordan said. “It described not just the stuff we’ve come to think of as outright lies, but also the subtle omission of the stuff that was not in the interest of big business.”

Putting the concept of “fake news” aside, said Jordan, from the printing press to the radio and the television each new medium was used to spread misinformation just as much as it was used to disseminate the truth. For example, early radio broadcasts reported that the Titanic was being saved as it sunk into the ocean.

“At each point when you get a new emerging media technology, you have these moments of eruption of misinformation as people are trying to figure out what the affordances are,” Jordan said.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that oversight will happen with the major social media outlets. In the meantime, Jordan said it’s important not to lose sight of local media and local issues, which are an integral part of democracy.

“They [local media] report things that people can understand and believe in and aren't just reacting to like a soap opera. And, I think that's what would regain people's trust in media,” Jordan said.

To listen to the full interview with Jordan, visit the podcast website or subscribe in iTunes or Spotify.

Last Updated August 22, 2018