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Fake news, Facebook and fact checking with The Times’ Head of Investigations, Alexi Mostrous

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Ahead of his appearance on the panel of Know Your Times' "Fake News: The Fight Back", we caught up with The Times’ Head of Investigations, Alexi Mostrous, to discuss the profit motives behind fake news, why social media is the new face of journalism, and how you can still get your dream job - even if it’s a little bit later than everybody else.

You’ve written quite a few articles on fake news - what drew you to this subject?

Everybody can see that the way news is disseminated now - compared to ten or even five years ago - is radically different. Instead of reading one or two sources we’ve got hundreds and thousands of ways of getting news. In the main that’s a very good thing, because it means people who were previously unable to put across their point of view are now able to through these new platforms.

The downside of this is that the filter that was previously there to check the accuracy of such news sources is now more difficult to apply to technology platforms. 

Also, there is no economic incentive for Facebook or Google or any other platform to differentiate between a true news or a fake news story. They are most concerned about how quickly and easily the story is disseminated. If the story goes viral, more people click on it, more people join the platforms, and they’re able, therefore, to make more of a profit. The impulse of these technology companies to make a profit has led to a proliferation in unchecked and unverified news stories, which has quite a profound effect on how people get their information.

How do you keep your stories factual at The Times?

We have a process by which we are expected to fact check. The main thing that allows us to be accurate is that we are a professional organisation that employs professional journalists, who are trained and put their names to every story. 

The story that went viral famously during Trump’s campaign, which was that the Pope had supported Trump, was not written by a professional journalist - it was put out by a website made to look like a professional news website, probably using a fake by-line i.e. not a real person had written that. It went viral and was hugely popular and lots of people believed it, but if you’re working here, you have to put your real name on the stories. 

You also have to check the facts. Other people, when the stories are filed, check the facts - our sub editors, for instance, will ring us up and say, “Are you sure this person was born in 1979, I’ve looked him up on Wikipedia and it says he was born in 1983”, so we’ve got various layers of sub editors and fact checkers that try and make sure the story is as accurate as possible.

How can we as readers on social media not be pulled in by fake news when some stories seem so convincing?

It’s very difficult sometimes to work out how much trust to give a particular news story versus another one, especially if it’s being presented in the same way on a Facebook feed. I know that Facebook is doing some work to verify stories by attaching verification marks on stories they believe to be from genuine sources.  

However, ultimately, it’s down to the reader to be aware of very basic signposts - if the language and grammar are bad, it’s likely they haven’t spent too much time checking the facts either. If it comes from a site where the homepage is made up of click bait stories, then that’s another danger sign - but ultimately it a big problem that we’re facing, of exactly how to make sure we can differentiate between bad stories and good stories.

It’s such a shame that more important news stories are getting overlooked due to fake news because they’re not as viral - would you ever want to eradicate social media platforms and stick with traditional journalism?

The thing is we shouldn’t want to go back to the past, these new platforms are here to stay and we need to, as newspapers and media owners, work out how to leverage them to make sure that our content gets to as many people as possible. They can be very powerful tools and they also do quite a lot of good; they give voices to people that have never had voices before, so I think it’s very important to not have a total downer on these platforms; we just have to see it in a nuanced way. An unfortunate consequence of everybody having a voice is that it’s very difficult for the people that have put in a lot of effort and research into telling the truth to have their voices heard.

How much responsibility should companies like Facebook and Google take for the promotion of fake news?

I think they should be taking more responsibility than they are currently. One of the reasons they’ve had such phenomenal success is that they’ve managed to convince regulators and government officials that they are no more than a distribution platform, that they are no more responsible for the content that comes out of their platforms than a telephone company is for the conversations that are carried out on its exchanges.

However, that ignores the fact that Facebook's algorithms, for instance, select stories that they think you will like and promotes those stories in your particular newsfeed. The software plays much more of an active role in dissemination of news on its channels than a phone company does in that scenario; they are lot closer to publishers than I think they would like to admit, and the big question for regulators going forward is how much to force upon Facebook and other platforms the same sort of responsibilities as newspapers and broadcasters currently have.

How can young people get more involved with proper journalism stories and weed out the fake news?

It’s a problem everyone is grappling with, a lot of media organisations are trying to put their content on Facebook. Facebook has announced recently that they would launch some sort of subscription service to enable people to subscribe to newspapers through its platform, but I think there’s a particular problem with accessing younger people and making them aware that there is quality content out there.

How did you get started in journalism?

I studied English at university, but didn’t know what I wanted to do at the end of it, so I did a law conversion course and trained as a barrister. I practiced for about five months and thought “I don’t want to do this” so I left and then I got a temp job at the Guardian helping produce a podcast. During that year I managed to pitch a couple of good stories to the news desk and got a couple of front pages and then that portfolio allowed me to apply to The Times grad trainee scheme.

I joined The Times as a grad trainee aged 27, so I was quite an old grad trainee! I did two years and then became media editor, working covering broadcasters and newspapers, and then switched over to investigations.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to get into “proper journalism”?

Well, journalists can come to newspapers from various different backgrounds, it’s not the case that you have to do a journalism degree or an MA in journalism, although that’s definitely one route in. You could do your A-levels and join your local newspaper and build up a big portfolio or you could do a completely different degree or profession and come in that way.

The key is to get as much work experience as possible and when you’re at that work experience, you’ve got to pitch ideas. Don’t sit there and wait for the news desk to give you jobs to do, think about ideas that you think might work and pitch them, be pushy and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask for advice.

The first Know Your Times event, free and open to university students, will take place on the 18th Oct in the News UK building at London Bridge. The panel, which includes Alexi, will discuss the theme "Fake News: The Fight Back". Doors open at 16:00 for a 17:00 start.

Get tickets here

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