Not long after he was elected US President in 2016, Donald Trump pointed at CNN anchor Jim Acosta during a press conference and declared, “You are fake news!” He has since accused many other media of propagating lies about him, notably The “failing” New York Times.
It would be funny – the man is hardly a renowned truth teller – if it weren’t so sinister. The newspaper is, after all, one of the most respected journalistic publications in the world. If we can’t trust the New York Times, who can we trust?
This is what makes the term ‘fake news’ so interesting. On the one hand, it refers to fabricated or deliberately misleading information parading as unbiased reporting, typically created with a specific political agenda.
But the epithet is also used by powerful entities to cast doubt on people, media and organisations that attempt to hold them to account.
Following Trump’s election, understanding the fake news phenomenon has become more urgent than ever, argues Professor of Formal Philosophy Vincent F. Hendricks and PhD fellow Mads Vestergaard. Hendricks is the director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) at The University of Copenhagen, where Vestergaard is conducting research into so-called ‘political bubbles’.
Together they have written a book – aptly titled Fake News – that serves as a step-by-step guide to the phenomenon. It takes us through the history of fake and misleading news, drawing upon human psychology, attention economics, the impact of technology on news dissemination, the commercialisation of media, and the polarisation of society through echo chambers.
“In writing the book, we wanted to figure out what happened with Trump’s election – what is this media world where it doesn’t matter if you are caught lying?” asks Vestergaard.
While Trump might have popularised the term ‘fake news’, both misinformation and propaganda existed well before the internet age.
One of the first major news hoaxes is thought to have taken place in 1835, when readers of The New York Sun were shocked to learn that a bat-like species of human lived on the moon. The story spread rapidly and shocked audiences across America, but not just because it was so captivating. The newspaper had introduced a business model that slashed the price of the newspaper, while increasing the space it gave to advertisers – the ‘fake news’ content was essentially a means to draw eyeballs to these adverts.
Rival newspapers with a stronger commitment to truth-telling eventually debunked The Sun’s stories. But the industry was transformed as other publishers copied the low-cost high-advertising model.
Just over 150 years later, the internet and social media came along. The technology has been enormously disruptive, exponentially increasing the amount of information available to readers. But because our capacity to absorb information remains the same, competition for our attention has also increased dramatically.
The difference between the internet and cheap newspapers and cable television is that information gatekeepers now feel much less ethical responsibility about the quality of the information they pass on. In the case of print and TV news, these gatekeepers were editorial boards. Now it’s Google and Facebook that are responsible for passing information along through their free platforms.
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But they aren’t really free. They make their money by selling information about us to advertisers so they can better target us with their products. To Google and Facebook, information is not necessarily valued for its social importance and truthfulness, but rather for its ability to attract our attention to its advertisers – who all too often are purveyors of fake news.
“What struck us was that the market for information is not regulated,” says Hendricks.
He draws an analogy to the subprime mortgage crisis that precipitated the 2008 financial crash. The US Federal Reserve didn’t want to regulate the housing market, because it believed that the market was efficient at weeding out bad services and products, and rewarding good ones. But bad – or subprime – mortgages were nevertheless bundled together with good ones, and sold on at far above their real value. When their worthlessness was ultimately discovered, it pulled the rug out from under the market.
Is Facebook a media?
The same goes for an unregulated information market. Bad information is not necessarily being weeded out, allowing for the proliferation of fake news. Because to Google and Facebook, there is no difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ information – the companies make money by selling access to their users to information suppliers, regardless of any commitment to journalistic integrity.
“These are stories that are either doctored, untruthful, or both, but that can survive and can have a big impact because of the attention allocated to them. This is the type of capital we are talking about,” says Hendricks, adding that it might be worth considering making attention allocators such as Google and Facebook more responsible for the information they disseminate.
“The big digital players control 95 percent of traffic and have become attention allocators like nobody else. They basically serve the same function as the BBC, but with two billion free journalists – in the case of, say, Facebook. So why not speculate – if you are extensionally equivalent to a media organisation, why not ask them to obey to the same journalistic rules and ethics as other media? Why not regulate outlets that control the bandwidth and have both rogue and good journalists? This already exists in principle with their community standards on what you can and cannot do. Google is also editing the search feed.”
Vestergaard adds that there are obvious difficulties that come with regulating the information that Facebook and Google share.
“You also have to respect free speech. You can’t regulate free speech away without undermining democracy and political debate. That’s what makes it tricky. When it comes to fake news, it’s not either-or, it’s a scale. You can also misinform people by telling the truth, but taking it out of context. So it’s hard.”
While regulating Facebook and Google may be difficult, there is increasing awareness about fake news and the dangers it poses. Hendricks points to one Danish survey in which 50 percent of Danes responded that they were somewhat concerned by fake news, and another that showed journalism was among the least-trusted professions. Organisations such as the World Economic Forum have identified fake news as one of the grand challenges facing the world, on par with climate change and growing inequality. That the leader of the world’s largest economy openly embraces ‘alternative facts’ only worsens this outlook.
One thing we can’t change is the way our brains work, and the social and psychological factors that make us susceptible to fake news in the first place. Motivated reasoning, for example, is a common decision-making phenomenon in which we seek evidence to support a position we already hold. It is also known as confirmation bias.
The problem is that social media and the internet now offer us even more opportunities to seek out information that supports our world view. This is exacerbated by the algorithms deployed by Facebook and Google to determine which results and information we see – the more we search for one thing, the more of it they give us. In the process, we end up in echo chambers and political bubbles that keep out contradictory information.
Hendricks adds that while the rise of fact checking is welcome, it doesn’t eradicate the problem.
“In order to debunk fake news, you have to mention it. By mentioning it, you increase its circulation, so the problem is that you can end up whitewashing information by causing it to be repeated again and again. The Colombia Journalism Review found that alt-right media were able to create a closed ecosystem to talk to the Trump base that caters exactly to their motivated reasoning, biases, and so on. At the same time, they do it so loudly that the established media is obliged to take it up. So it sets agendas across the board.”
Rather than address each and every single piece of news out there, a better strategy may be to equip citizens with tools to deal with information. And Hendricks’ centre CIBS has won funding to do precisely that.
“We are preparing a course for high school students on how to understand the nuts and bolts of why stories go viral, looking at social psychology, polarisation, echo chambers, motivated reasoning and so on,” he says.
“The goal is to be able to navigate as an enlightened citizen, because information is still the best means we have to enable qualified deliberation, decision and action. When you have an exponential rise in information, but don’t have the time, you need a tool box – so you can say, ‘I want info on x to make a qualified decision on y, so what do I need to know?'”
Hendricks and Vestergaard end the book with a chapter on the dangers of a post-factual democracy, where truth becomes secondary to opinion in driving policy. But the solution is not to establish a technocracy – a government run by expert administrators.
“Experts and scientists are too specialised. You can’t put political power in their hands – there is a lot that they don’t know. They don’t have the experiences that are needed. It’s important to hold on to democracy, to know that it’s a balance. We need experts and scientists and journalists to talk about the facts, but they don’t get it right all the time, and they aren’t infallible, so it needs to be a dialogue. There is no value-free science. The facts you choose to look at already represent a value choice. So we need a discussion about science and what effect it has on the results without the conversation being based on mistrust. That’s why we need an open discussion about economic interests in science. We need more openness to fight the mistrust,” says Hendricks.
Ultimately, we have to face the structural problems created when the information age caters to and feeds into democracy.
“We are just trying to present a diagnosis of how the information age and democracy do or do not fit together, respecting the idea that our understanding of democracy is something that comes from the enlightenment. There is this idea that the more information you give people, the better they become at correctly selecting and processing it to make better decisions. But that doesn’t follow by nature. That’s part of the problem,” says Vestergaard.
While Hendricks stresses that post-factual populism can be found on both the left and right political wings, the more immediate threat is on the right. A few weeks before they went to print, Hendricks received an email from President Trump – he subscribed to Trump’s mailing list – declaring that the media are the enemy of the people.
Vestergaard argues that his strategy to divide society and develop a grand narrative about a battle between good and evil is a classic signal of totalitarianism as described by the great 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt.
“When we recognise the prevalence of this epic ‘us-and-them’ narrative, as Arendt writes, that’s worth looking at. Not to say we are there yet, but to say that these narratives are undermining democracy and could get worse unless we stand up to them,” says Vestergaard.
“If everything is about ‘us and them’, truth goes to the grave and all that matters is winning.” M