Apple News and the News Problem

I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the predicament we have with the subject of news, and fake news to be exact. A fascinating report, which quantified something any observant person would have realized, validates that fake news spreads faster and wider than the truth. Here is a key excerpt from the study:

Lies spread faster than the truth
There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

Humans are entirely predictable. There has been much study in behavioral psychology around the many different types of biases humans have. One of the more commonly understood is confirmation bias and it is the root reason fake news spreads faster than truth. In case you aren’t familiar with confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias is a variation of the more general tendency of apophenia.

It is not entirely understood the typical path one takes to arrive at some core conclusions but the reality is that once they have made up their mind it is nearly impossible to get them to change it. Interestingly, there is a heavy theme in modern behavioral psychology going on at the moment to study and understand these dynamics, and in particular, what leads a person to change their mind and in the end alter behavior. But in some more recent landmark studies, it is being found that even when being bombarded with counterfactuals, humans alter their views less than 30% of the time. And that is when they are confronted with a host of counter information. If they live in a bubble or only seek out and read information that confirms their bias then it is obviously well less than 30%. Sadly, this is exactly what social media allows and enforces.

Going deeper on the psychology behind this issue, there is an additional dynamic called the Backfire Effect. In a highly recommended read on this matter by David McRaney You are Now Less Dumb:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper

So now we encounter a problem most of us likely ran into with something like Facebook. Someone shares a story, which fits their belief but is not accepted as truth, or has been proven wrong already (like climate change), and you add a comment then a link to an article or two that show hard data and sound reasoning that is counter to their position. They then double down and reply with several more articles that validate their conviction (most coming from sources you have never heard of and sound entirely sketchy). This goes on and on, and no progress is made. When it comes to news on Facebook, it is the living embodiment of confirmation bias and the backfire effect on display on a nearly daily basis. In fact, if anything Facebook, and social media in general, serves as an amplification of confirmation bias.

Where From Here?
Sadly, fake news is never going away. As long as the underlying business of media is ads, and the main way to make money is to drive clicks, people will exploit these predictable parts of human behavior to make money. There is also the underlying problem looming where a nation, wanting to impact public sentiment of another country, can teach machines to generate fake news and spread them via bots (fake humans pretending to be real humans). It is and will be a continual battle and a vicious cycle. But here is a key realization from this problem, it will simply now take longer and more effort to distill fact from fiction.

So what is the solution? This is a hard problem and one that will likely not go away entirely. It is within this framework, I found this experiment by New York Times columnist, Farhad Manjoo quite interesting. Farhad took it upon himself to only get his news from printed newspapers. He recognized the Internet tends to spread falsehoods quickly, and by exhibiting self-control and patience by waiting to get the whole story, more accurately reported on the next day in printed form, he found he was much more informed. The whole article is a great read, and I recommend reading if you haven’t.

What Farhad’s experiment shows us is that we are better off with curation of news related content than the wild-wild West of fake news sharing of social media. Again, business models of both social media and the rewarding of click-bait articles by way of advertising are in large part to blame. It is within this framework that Apple News has come into a new perspective.

There were some reasons Farhad’s experiment drew him to the conclusions he made, trust being a big factor. He trusted the sources because they have a history of being credible and fact-checking is standard practice. This is where a new type of trusted destination can come into play and perhaps where Apple News has a role to play.

Yesterday, news came out that Apple purchased Texture, a service that gives users access to magazines, and other publications, for a set monthly rate. With this move, Apple deepens access to quality, and trusted content, within Apple News.

Apple seems like they are well positioned to help deal with this and also give their users a better experience when it comes to consuming news. Over the last year, my usage of Apple News has increased greatly to the point where it is my main morning source of news and an increasing percentage of my morning reading routine.

Providing a more customer-centered experience around news content is something Apple is incentivized to do with their business model. While it seems Google should do something similar with Android, however, given their ads business they are not as incentivized as Apple in this area.

What Farhad’s experiment proves, and what Apple News provides, is a curated experience with news and content in general. My sense of trust of the information I read from Apple News, in some cases, transcends the source as I often encounter great content from places I was not familiar with. Where with Facebook, I have to approach all articles shared by friends or family from sources I’ve never heard of with a dose of skepticism. Reading content from Apple News doesn’t give me that same anxiety when it comes to content and its source.

We are in uncharted territory. This is going to take a lot of time and work to undo the damage, and if anything it won’t go away but will be a constant battle. The Internet has done a great deal of good for humanity but this issue certainly highlights some of the web’s ugly side.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

4 thoughts on “Apple News and the News Problem”

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