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Discussions about fake news, ignited right after the US Presidential election in November 2016, have continued to dominate the public debate, as Internet companies increasingly face backlash over the spread of fake news on their platforms. Fake news has become a concern across time, regions, and the political spectrum, leaving many to wonder about its implications, spillover effects, and the role of ‘truth’ in today’s Internet era.
1. A grave concern or a tool against free press?
The discussion on fake news has been made even more ambiguous and complex with the multiple uses of the concept in different kinds of discussions. This blogpost discusses the trend of misinformation on social media platforms that seem to have mushroomed throughout last year. In another context, U.S. President Trump has declared that ‘fake news’ is ‘the enemy of the American people’ and that ‘any negative polls are fake news’, giving rise to the emerging claim that some politicians and commentators have co-opted the term ‘to mean anything they disagree with’. This risks transforming the term fake news into something ‘essentially meaningless and more of a stick to beat the mainstream ...’. Yet, while these political figures might extensively exaggerate the phenomenon and point towards the wrong source, there are plenty of indications that fake news, generated and disseminated online, is a grave concern. Not because of its political undesirability, but because of the spread of factually incorrect information.
2. A new post-truth era or an age-old phenomenon?
Connected to the hype around fake news, some have suggested that we are living in a post-truth era, in which public opinion is shaped by emotions and personal perceptions rather than objective facts. The concept of ‘post-truth’ was even chosen as Oxford Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ of 2016 as it was extensively used in the context of Brexit and the U.S. Presidential Election.
At first sight, fake news and post-truth might appear to be different phenomena: fake news is the presentation of false information as objective facts. Post-truth refers to the irrelevance of objective facts in shaping public opinion. Yet the two concepts are closely related: in an era in which personal feelings, perceptions, and beliefs seem to be the main factors in public decision-making, fake news arises to play into those feelings and confirm pre-existing perceptions with sensational headlines.
Historians are debating whether fake news is something inherently new about today’s society, or whether it is a continuation of the past. Many claim that fake news has always existed, pointing at antiquity, interwar Germany and Britain, or twentieth-century ideological struggles. Although the interests of certain actors to spread false information is as old as humanity, today’s society might be particularly prone to the reception of large quantities of false information.
The main difference between the past and the present is the advent of digital media. Online platforms have introduced the ability to disseminate news to millions of people in one click. Furthermore, these platforms are increasingly used by political and economic actors for ‘microtargeting’: direct marketing data-mining that tailors messages to subgroup of the society based on the information they provide on online platforms. In addition, as society is overloaded by information on the Internet, those articles that provide sensational highlight are often picked out and given most attention, while these are more likely to be false. These articles are not only cherry-picked by Internet users, but are also often prioritised by media platforms with algorithms that are based on user behavior, rather than what is factual. Moreover, this dissemination is arguably easier in an online environment that is loosely regulated, providing a more fertile breeding ground for fake news than ever before.
Finally, the spaces in which users interact online can become echo chambers, where we only meet like-minded people with like-minded views. The selection of both content and people based on their similarity to ourselves is not necessarily something new, yet the Internet could allow the force of the echo to become louder, and the walls to become thicker. While offline spaces form a more or less coherent media ecosystem in which we can choose our own news outlets from the selection available, online echo chambers have the tendency to produce multiple parallel media ecosystems comprised of their own websites, publishers, and news outlets, which reinforce one worldview and refute others, whether they are factual or not. In fact, the walls of these echo chambers can be so thick that ‘any misinformation spreads almost instantaneously within one group,...’.
3. An Anglo-Saxon frenzy or a global trend?
Most discussions about fake news have predominantly focused on its role in US politics or the British referendum on EU membership. Yet, although the initial uproar about fake news might have been generated by these processes in the USA and the UK, other countries are increasingly having to deal with their own fake news incidents.
In Europe, concerns have arisen over the fake media's potential to impact this year’s elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Fake news has also entered the news ecosystems of a number of African countries, including Eritrea, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, leading Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, to claim that fake information ‘poses a greater threat than insurgency and militancy’. Similar fake news incidents have been reported in Iran and India. In Latin America, the Venezuelan government blocked CNN in Spanish, accusing it of spreading fake news.
4. A balanced response: A suppression of facts or a suppression of freedoms?
The natural first responders ‒ and most criticised actors ‒ are the platforms on which fake news is published or can spread. Filtering and suppressing content that could possibly contain false information risks infringing freedom of expression and might lead to a situation in which intermediaries are the arbiters of truth ‒ a role that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is ‘extremely cautious’ about. At the same time, fake news can lead to massive misinformation and adverse political consequences.
This delicate balance was also highlighted by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who explained that the tech sector should not be stepping on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but we ‘must also help the reader’.
Dealing with fake news begs another question: Is it realistic for Internet platforms to be able to filter through the millions of posts that are published on their platforms every day? Can artificial intelligence provide solutions for automatic filtering, as it has been suggested by the Internet industry?
Several fact-checking initiatives have also been launched outside the realm of Internet companies. The EU established the East Stratcom Task Force to address ‘Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns’, and has discredited 2500 stories since its creation in June 2015. Similar initiatives have been implemented in Finland and the Czech Republic. Africa Check promotes accurate information in Africa’s public debates and media outlets.
In the UK, parliament is planning to launch an inquiry into fake news and the role of social media platforms, which are seen to ‘have a responsibility to ensure their platforms are not being used ...’. The German government has taken concrete steps against fake news with an action plan that would make it easier to filter fake information from the Internet, protect victims of fake news, and fine Internet platforms that do not comply with the plan with a suggested figure of €500,000.
Nevertheless, questions remain whether such groups will have a meaningful effect when they are faced with the enormous amount of potentially falsified content that is being shared on social media platforms worldwide.
The key may be in awareness-raising and education. Apple CEO Tim Cook echoed an increasingly heard message, calling for ‘massive information campaigns’ targeting every demographic. South Africa’s Eyewitness News website implemented a fake news guide last month, alerting all visitors to its websites ‘Don’t fall victim to fake news!’ and in the USA, schools have tentatively started to adapt their curriculum towards better awareness of fake news and fact-checking.
Cambridge University’s innovative solution is to provide a fake news ‘vaccine’. Researchers propose ‘pre-emptively exposing’ readers to small bits of fake information, ‘to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to...’.
This blog post was originally published at https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/fake-news-what’s-behind-media-frenzy.
Follow the latest developments on how stakeholders are tackling the issue of fake news, and how fake news is impacting digital policy, on our dedicated page on the GIP Digital Watch observatory.
Did you know that echo chambers can affect public diplomacy? Read the blog post here.
Interested in e-diplomacy? Join the course in May 2017. Stay tuned: DiploFoundation is finalising a new online course on fake news and disinformation.