Where's Philanthropy's Fight Against Fake News Headed Next?

 photo: PiXXart/shutterstock

photo: PiXXart/shutterstock

According to the Foundation Center, since 2016, grantmakers have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into newsrooms, think tanks and universities that support media research and practice. 

Some of this money has flowed as part of philanthropy's new fight against fake news, which began in earnest in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

We've been tracking this stream of funding since it began, just weeks after the last votes were counted. And we've wondered how long it would last. Would this be a case of foundations and wealthy individuals throwing some quick money at a problem before moving on to the next hot issue? Or was it the start of a deeper, longer-term push by philanthropy to improve how information flows and media works? 

It's still too early to say, but the Hewlett Foundation's major give on this issue, announced last week, suggests that philanthropy's fight against fake news still has plenty of momentum. The move comes amid a firestorm around Facebook's privacy practices and ongoing revelations about Russia's interference in the 2016 election. In some ways, the heat here is growing as fake news concerns dovetail with broader fears about social networks and the power of Big Tech. 

Following a yearlong exploration, Hewlett will allocate $10 million over the next two years toward grappling with the growing problem that digital disinformation poses for U.S. democracy. Focusing primarily on the role of social media, the new funding commitment will support high-quality research to improve decisions made by technology leaders as well as government and civil society advocates.

Research will seek to increase the understanding of digital information, surface potential solutions, and examine practical and philosophical considerations in addressing digital disinformation. To the latter point, research may explore "incentives for voluntary regulation and the role of government including agencies such as the FEC, FTC, FCC and others."

While the R word, regulation, is dreaded in Silicon Valley, I think it's safe to say that social media companies could use help wrestling with some of the larger issues, here. (Mark Zuckerberg, you may recall, admitted that when he was coding into the night at Harvard, he didn't expect that less than 10 years later, he'd be worrying about how his platform would be used to manipulate domestic and foreign elections.)

The foundation plans to support a small number of grantees with larger grants to advance the field of researchers, advocates and decision-makers working in this area. The effort is one part of Hewlett's Madison Initiative, founded in 2013 to strengthen the values, norms, and institutions of U.S. democracy in a polarized era.  

In an interview published earlier this year in Inside Philanthropy, Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer foreshadowed the foundation's pivot to combating digital disinformation. "Democracy is more than just voting," he said. It is governing in a way that cherishes a "free press, an independent judiciary, and other critical political and civil institutions.... Observing what’s happening today, I fear we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of American democracy. I know that sounds dramatic, but it just might be true. So that’s what keeps me up at night."

Fortunately, when you preside over a foundation with $9 billion in assets, you can act on your insomnia by cutting some hefty checks. 

An Evolving Division of Labor

As the funder-led crusade against fake news has expanded in terms of the number of participants and strategies, we're beginning to see a division of labor among funders come into focus. Hewlett Program Officer Kelly Born alluded to this development while commenting on its new initiative.

"Digital disinformation is a problem that philanthropy is still getting its arms around, and tackling in different ways," she said. "Some philanthropies are intervening 'upstream' to improve journalism and create high-quality content, while others are working 'downstream' on citizen-facing efforts like fact-checking and news literacy.

"Our funding will focus 'midstream,' where widely trusted gatekeepers have been replaced by a wild west of voices active on social media platforms."

Born's analysis is spot-on, and it provides a good opportunity to see where other funders' efforts fall across this continuum.

For example, the News Integrity Initiative, a consortium funded by Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation, and others, recently released a roadmap spelling out its strategy to help people "make informed judgments about the news they read and share online."

By "building enduring trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the public through sustained listening, collaboration, and transparency," the NII embraces upstream strategies.

Similarly, the new Community Listening and Engagement Fund, backed by the NII, the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation, and the Lenfest Institute, will work with newsrooms to produce more relevant, differentiated, and engaging content.

And Craig Newmark, upon giving a $1 million grant to ProPublica earmarked for investigative reporting, said, "as citizens, we can only make informed decisions when we have news we can trust. Independent investigative reporting is essential to shoot down false claims and expose bad actors."

The logic here is simple. Upstream proponents seek to reign in the proliferation of fake news by producing accurate, high-quality news that engages the community. The cream will rise to the top.

Funders are dabbling in more downstream waters, as well. Last year, Newmark made a $1 million grant to the Poynter Institute to support a five-year program that focuses on "verification, fact-checking and accountability in journalism." 

Meanwhile, a closer look at the 20 winning projects behind Knight's Prototype fund reveals a blended approach. Some winning projects embrace upstream themes like "citizen journalism/news engagement," while others, by promoting "media/news/information literary" and "fact checking," were more downstream in nature. 

(In related news, journalists and media entrepreneurs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz recently launched NewsGuard, which, while not a philanthropic entity, also aims to address fake news by hiring trained journalists to review news and information websites and provide corresponding "reliability ratings." Knight is among the investors in this effort.)

Add it all up, and funders seem to have the upstream and downstream intervention points covered. Hewlett understands this and clearly wasn't interested in reinventing the wheel. What's more, its midstream posture may go a long way to addressing process gaps across this larger continuum.

Consider funders' upstream efforts. Initiatives to build trust and collaboration between the public and newsrooms in the news gathering process is certainly important, but most fake news doesn't come from established newsrooms. It originates, to quote Born, from "conspiracy theorists, foreign adversaries and others who can now use bots, micro-targeting and other techniques to amplify polarizing, distorted content."

"You’ve had disinformation and propaganda since the dawn of man. But now, we have no gatekeepers," Born said. "Anyone can produce content and disseminate it."

And while viewers need to be educated about what may or may not be fake, "downstream" activities like promoting news literacy assumes the reader has already come into contact with fake news. The genie, as they say, is already out of the bottle. Viewers must make an intelligent decision regarding the veracity of the content and refrain from sharing it any further.

By investigating and educating the social media gatekeepers that disseminate the news, Hewlett's "midstream" approach imagines a future in which many viewers may never see a piece fake news on social media in the first place because it was properly vetted.

Saving Social Media

As noted, Hewlett's midstream strategy emerged after a yearlong exploration that engaged leading data scientists, political scientists, technology company representatives, civil society advocates, and other funders including through multiple convenings and an in-depth, independent review of the academic literature.

The foundation, according to Born, concluded that "changing the practices of hundreds of newsrooms and millions of citizens is much harder than looking at the practices of half a dozen or so social-media platforms." As it happens, Facebook's headquarters—located at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California—is a mere seven miles from the Hewlett Foundation's offices. 

Meanwhile, the larger conversation about social media keeps evolving. 

In a recent piece in the New York Times titled "Can Social Media Be Saved?" Kevin Roose wrote, "I don't need to tell you that something is wrong with social media. Maybe it's the way you feel while scrolling through your Twitter feed—anxious, twitchy, a little world weary."

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the bloom is clearly off the social media rose. But Roose remains cautiously optimistic. "The original dream of social media—producing healthy discussion, unlocking new forms of creativity, connecting people to others with similar interests—shouldn't be discarded because of the failures of the current market leaders."

Hewlett, I suspect, wholeheartedly agrees with this assessment.

Social media—and, unfortunately, the proliferators of fake news—are here to stay. By focusing on the besieged and unwitting promoters of fake news, Hewlett's new initiative aims to hold social media "market leaders" accountable, prodding and empowering them to do the right thing.