BuzzFeed editor-in-chief in year-end memo: ‘Fake news will become more sophisticated’ than ever in 2017

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BuzzFeed employees at the company’s headquarters in New York.
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Thomson Reuters

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, predicted in a year-end memo to his staff Thursday that so-called fake news would thrive more than ever in 2017.

“Fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous, and spun-up stories will spread widely,” Smith said in the memo, which was obtained by Business Insider.

Smith continued: “Hoaxes will have higher production value. It is, for instance, getting easier and easier to create video of someone saying something he or she never said – a tool both for fake news and false denials.”

Smith warned that “powerful filter bubbles will drive competing narratives from parallel universes of facts.”

“In one recent instance that seems a sign of things to come, a Jewish family harassed after a bullshit report that they had gotten a Christmas event canceled were the subject of what apears [sic] to be an overdone – and mega-viral – claim that they ‘fled,'” he wrote, referring to a story that was widely spread last week in left-leaning circles.

The BuzzFeed editor said he was “hopeful,” nevertheless, because “audiences are growing more aware of this story, more interested in it, and more able to navigate information.”

“We are better than anyone at understanding how stories travel and the role platforms play, at telling these stories clearly and accurately and at debunking the false ones,” he said. “We should own this story on every beat.”

In his year-end memo, Smith touched on numerous other topics, including how the website would cover President-elect Donald Trump.

Here’s the memo in full:

Hey all,

I’m writing to wish you a happy new year and to give you some fairly abstract thoughts and predictions about how we are going to cover the news next year in the U.S. and around the world. I think these will apply pretty much regardless of what you cover, and hope you’ll take a minute to think about how they might:

1) The information environment itself will become even more central to our coverage:

Fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous, and spun-up stories will spread widely. Hoaxes will have higher production value. It is, for instance, getting easier and easier to create video of someone saying something he or she never said – a tool both for fake news and false denials.

And powerful filter bubbles will drive competing narratives from parallel universes of facts. In one recent instance that seems a sign of things to come, a Jewish family harassed after a bullshit report that they had gotten a Christmas event canceled were the subject of what apears to be an overdone – and mega-viral – claim that they “fled.”

One hopeful note: audiences are growing more aware of this story, more interested in it, and more able to navigate information. We are better than anyone at understanding how stories travel and the role platforms play, at telling these stories clearly and accurately and at debunking the false ones. We should own this story on every beat.

******

2) Donald Trump will drive the U.S. narrative. We will cover the hell out of the president and the administration as we have covered him all along – fairly and without making compromises for access. But we’ll break through most where we can seize the initiative ourselves: Report something nobody else has found or observed, clearly, fairly, and credibly.

******

3) More broadly, the news cycle has centralized to a degree that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen. Trump’s election – and more broadly the wave of global nationalism – are the central current, and much of the beat reporting that breaks through will be touching an electric story to that live wire.

This centralization means more focus and, to put a operational point on it, more assignments and coordination, mostly in the U.S. but also at times globally. We need to own one of these big central stories every day.

*******

4) We have to keep earning our audience’s trust. We don’t expect people to trust us because of our job titles, and we don’t work under a legacy brand that brings some residual trust. So we have to earn it by being fair and careful and open, by being aware of the urge to pander to people’s filter bubbles, and by correcting when we get it wrong. Assume your reader thinks BuzzFeed News only covers cute animals, or that we are ideological or corporate pawns. Tell stories that inspire trust even with a tough crowd.

When it comes to video, in particular, the old signifiers of trust – the guy behind the anchor desk – no longer hold. As we look at increasingly ambitious video productions and partnerships in 2017, our operating theory is that our audience is more likely to trust someone they think is a real person and can relate to than someone who puts on the trappings of authority.

******

Of course, predictions didn’t serve us particularly well in 2016, and the real news is always what you don’t see coming. But I’d rather be in this business, and this newsroom, than any other, and I’m excited for what we do in the coming year