Are you paying attention?

If 2016 was the year when fake news became – well, news – then 2017 seems to be a time for reflection and analysis. Several commentators in the press have started to ask, how does fake news – such as the “revelation” last year that Democratic senators in the US wanted to impose sharia law in Florida – gain traction?

Most mainstream media outlets are the first to say that it’s not them, of course. Yet stories exposing fake news have become popular in national newspapers that have seen their readerships dwindle before the inexorable march of the digital monoliths Facebook, Twitter and Google.

It has been reported, for example, that about half of US citizens get their news from Facebook. But the actual research by Pew, the media researcher, doesn’t show that. Fewer than one in five Americans “often” use social media to check out the news – most use TV as their media of choice.

It has been reported, for example, that about half of US citizens get their news from Facebook

If readerships of social media are both smaller and less dependent on social media than it seems, how big a problem is fake news? Are traditional media amplifying the problem to get at their competitors – even if subconsciously? And, when risk managers are trying to assess what emerging risks to put on their risk registers, how do they gauge who is reading what, and how much credence should they give such stories?

In a recent book on the issue of attention grabbing, historian of the internet Tim Wu, argues that fake news is good for being liked and shared quickly. That helps social media channels because the adverts attached to those stories are also disseminated at the click of a button. And good for business, because what the digital giants are selling is access to our attention.

In light of these musings, perhaps a good New Year’s Resolution would be to be more parsimonious with your attention. Instead of trying to work out whether there is any risk lurking behind fake news stories, just turn the page, or click onto the next item, whenever you see the term mentioned. Such an approach may not make you any better informed, but it will clear your mind of useless noise and help you pay attention to what really matters.

Arthur Piper
Editor, Enterprise Risk magazine

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