The value of truth: How governments and the media are investing in the renewed appetite for facts

Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway

When Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway referred to "alternative facts" earlier this month, she succinctly encapsulated the ongoing narrative of some governments propagating the shadowy, Orwellian world of "disinformation" that has risen to prominence in recent months. The subsequent backlash has placed renewed impetus on media outlets to put news reporting under the microscope.

In light of the "fake news" phenomenon, French newspaper Le Monde is launching a series of tools on Wednesday designed to help its readers separate fact from fiction. The products, known as Décodex, are centered around a database that tracks 600 websites responsible for dubiously sourced news. This can be accessed via Le Monde's own website, where readers can type in URLs they want to test the veracity of. Alongside this, the newspaper will unveil a free browser attachment for online readers using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, which uses a colored labeling system to indicate potential fake news. A Facebook Messenger bot will provide a similar service for mobile users.

Samuel Laurent, head of Le Monde's fact-checking arm Les Décodeurs which is behind the new launches, told CNBC via telephone that his mission was to "change the way people see the news." For Laurent, the project is a way of expressing the media industry's defiance against fake news impostors. "We are going to fight," he said.

Le Monde's Les Décodeurs predates the furor surrounding fake news and U.S. President Donald Trump's election campaign late last year, and instead was started after the Paris terrorist attacks in December 2015. Conspiracy theories surrounding the event were rife online.

Laurent also sees the tools as a rebuff from traditional news companies to social media behemoths. He told CNBC that he wanted to "say to social media outlets that it is possible to discriminate between sources." Google and Facebook among others have taken steps to tackle fake news, though debate lingers as to whether they have gone far enough.

The idea of an internet browser extension detecting fake news is not strictly new. Last December, the Washington Post launched its own version – RealDonaldContext – which adds "context or corrections" to Trump's tweets.

There has also been resurgence of funding and hiring in investigative journalism departments. The New York Times, in a note to staff sent earlier in January, announced that "The company is investing more than ever in accountability journalism" and will dedicate an additional $5 million to "produce even more coverage of the incoming Trump administration." The investment is pertinent considering that data from Pew Research Center in December showed that 64 percent of U.S. adults thought that completely fake news had caused a great deal of confusion about current events.

Action is also being taken on a governmental level against potentially harmful fake news. On Monday, the British government launched its official inquiry into the phenomenon. Damian Collins MP, chair of the committee behind the initiative, said in an official press release that: "Consumers should … be given new tools to help them assess the origin and likely veracity of news stories they read online," echoing Laurent's sentiments. Collins described fake news as a "threat to democracy."

But, public sector funding can be hard to come by. A source familiar with the work of the European Union's East StratCom Task Force – its body dedicated to combating "pro-Kremlin disinformation" – told CNBC via telephone that the western world must do more to counter such material flowing from Russia's well-funded state news outlets. The source added that extra funding for the East StratCom Task Force had been proposed by the European Parliament last November, but had not been endorsed by member states. Nonetheless, the eleven-strong team was expected to grow slightly in size this year.

Laurent was adamant that Le Monde's new tools are the result of his organization's sense of duty to the public, explaining that they will be free of charge because "We don't do it for the money." But, he added that the products would help the newspaper move "closer to (its) audience" as they were "designed as a way to help people."

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