For years, newspaper design helped us identify fake news. Not anymore

It's quicker than ever to create a professional-looking website. For purveyors of fake news, that makes crafting—and sharing—believable stories an easy task

May 10, 2019
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As the web has developed, the art of web design has grown with it. At the same time, the ubiquity of social media has fundamentally altered how we consume our news.

The evidence suggests that despite all the controversies of the last few years, we are becoming more, not less trusting of our news feeds (up from 15 per cent to 22 per cent from 2011 to 2018).

This isn’t a coincidence: the appearance of online news, with its large “hero” images, HTML5 charts and graphics, suggests authority. As news websites have become more polished, they have made the amateurish-looking blog mostly a thing of the past.

We have reached a point where to distinguish visually between sources of news online, particularly when browsing in a hurry, can be difficult. Many of the shorthand pieces of visual language which help us distinguish print publications—font choices, paper size, image choice and colour schemes—are not present or less prominent online. While there are still obvious differences between the websites of, say, the Sun and the Financial Times, within the tabloids and broadsheets, there is often little to distinguish them in visual identity.

This level of similarity isn’t problematic while users are dealing with established titles—few UK readers won’t have heard of the Sun—but in a changing landscape of new media outlets, a strong visual presence can provide an initial veneer of credibility for those with less than noble aims.

This problem reaches its nadir on social media, where the presentation of links is virtually undistinguished. While a reader might choose not to click on a link to the Guardian or the Telegraph, depending on their tastes, they may not know instinctively that, for example, the Boston Tribune or the Denver Guardian are fake news sites.

All links come with an embedded image and an SEO-friendly headline—often highly emotive and designed to garner reactions and shares—in a way which standardises the look of the news feed and gives equal weight to every post, no matter the source.

The Edelman Trust Barometer Survey data for the UK in 2018 showed 64 per cent of people are not confident they can distinguish legitimate reporting from rumours or lies.

In the same survey, as many as 42 per cent of people said they only skim the headlines on social media, leaving the content—where truth can most easily be determined—often unread. We see this reflected in the hectoring of journalists for headlines which they didn’t write, by people who haven’t read their argument.

Despite this, increasing numbers of people over the long term are coming to trust social media as a source of news.

Polls by YouGov show this cohort growing from 15 per cent in 2011 to 22 per cent in 2018—while the number who trust traditional news sites has dropped from 55 per cent to 39 per cent.

Facebook has made glacial progress towards verifying sources, discouraging shares of outright fake stories and providing an info button providing context for the source of a link, but this is a patchy system at best. Twitter has failed to address extremists using its platform, and there is no system for verifying sources of links there—Twitter cards are universally available, and in an online economy based on retweets and likes, it’s easy to see why action has been reluctant.

Despite the heavy focus, fake news is arguably less dangerous than ultra-partisan sites, which tend to rely on confirming prejudices, spinning stories well beyond the bounds of normal journalistic practice, and wearing partisan leanings on their sleeves.

Breitbart, a far-right outlet which regularly publishes extremist content enjoyed by Donald Trump, was the ninth-largest content source on Facebook last year (the top spot went to Fox News).

It has a strong brand identity and a loyal following, and its website is little different visually from that of other online news outlets.

The first step in tackling this is to enable the use of Twitter cards, and Facebook’s rich content links, only for verified outlets—or at least for pages registered or given a marking identifying them as news sources.

The verification system could be as straightforward as that already in place to use both platforms’ APIs. This is no more a restriction of free speech than being denied free billboard space.

Links could still be posted, but free of the visual identifier for “news” which so badly muddies the waters.

Further steps, such as disabling comments or sharing of unverified news outlets, are drastic but necessary ideas—more for developers than designers to implement.

In building standards for web design which have enabled creativity, ease of use and opened up online news to ever more outlets, designers share responsibility in the current debate around extremism on the web. The Guardian recently took a positive step in tackling this by building date stamps into its articles’ images in an attempt to stop the viral spread of very old emotive stories, and ensuring this clarity is prominent when shared on social media.

This is an approach other outlets should follow. If they won’t, social media platforms can—and should—adjust their Open Graph data scraping to include it themselves.

Social media is the platform where the war against misleading news is being fought—and it should be the primary focus for these changes, with increased prominence given to trusted outlets, and toning down or turning off the ability for untrustworthy sources to be liked or shared.

But the responsibility is not with the platforms alone. As the Guardian’s efforts prove, we as content designers can affect the way they operate. By doing so, we can improve trust in our free press—and win out over the forces of fake and hyperpartisan news which attempt to disrupt our public discourse.