Why the fake news panic matters

Information is the currency of our world. Business, politics, social discourse, international relations and more rest on the assumption of shared, accurate information. But we learned in 2016 how that currency is being debased in an alarming number of ways.

What has been labelled “fake news” covers a wide spectrum of problems with news and information. The problems are driven by structural issues which the developed world has yet to address. These include digital accountability of algorithms and the dominant market power of the big technology companies that devise them; the failed business model for serious news and information; deep public confusion about the differences between facts and opinion – often created deliberately by political interests at home or from abroad – and the consequent dominance of assertion over evidence in public debate. All of which has created a vacuum of trust which is undermining many of the institutions upon which open, democratic societies rest.

If we are to have confidence in what we learn about the world and how it works, these structural issues need serious attention. First, what is meant by “fake news”? The term burst into the open following Donald Trump’s election and the British EU referendum when many complained that those campaigns were based on “lies”, false rumours and innuendo – and more significantly, that campaign supporters didn’t seem to care whether news was true or false as long as it re-inforced their personal biases.

The media went into a period of intense self-criticism for how both campaigns had been reported – and how they had missed the story of the strength of the new populism running through the US and Europe. In turn, the phrase started to be applied – not least by Donald Trump himself – to any news report with which they disagreed. With little sense of irony, the term intended to indicate the misuse of the media was itself misused.

The issue is serious enough for President Obama to denounce it, and now President George W Bush as well,  and for the Pope to castigate the media over the propagation of fake news. And it has real consequences as Hilary Clinton – a victim of invented slurs – pointed out when a gunman went to a pizza store to conduct an “independent investigation” into false rumours it was the site of a Clinton paedophilia scandal.

Or when, in the UK, relentless media scare stories about immigration apparently inspired the murder of politician Jo Cox during the EU referendum campaign. In the age of social media such stories – absurd as many are – move with alarming speed. At the height of the US election, one invented story about the Clintons and a dead FBI agent was being shared 100 times a minute.

Of course we have had false news for a century or more. Propaganda designed to sway public opinion pre dates both world wars of the last century. “Pst-Ops” (Psychological Operations) has become a core component of modern conflict management. And the media have through design or error run fake stories from Hitler’s Diaries to celebrity scandals. What has changed has been the political imperative to take psy-ops techniques into a domestic, peacetime environment, and the capability of the internet to distribute and reinforce false information in a variety of ways – from filter bubbles to weighted search results.

Professor Jonathan Albright, of Elon University, tracked the sources of fake news during 2016. He calls them “Micro propaganda machines” which are designed to

 “..instantly shape public opinion through mass reaction to serious political topics and news events. This network is triggered on-demand to spread false hyper-biased and politically loaded information.”

Many of these stories were invented for commercial gain – with teenagers in Macedonia able to earn thousands of dollars by inventing news to appeal to Trump supporters. Others, from the “alt-right” learned how to game social media to gain political advantage. On the internet, it all looks much the same as a report from the New York Times or the BBC – organisations with rigorous editorial processes and systems of accountability.

More disturbing is the international dimension with “disinformatzya” from Russia designed to sow confusion among western audiences through what critics have labelled “weaponised relativism”. Russia, and China, have both invested significantly in international media at a time when western newsrooms have faced significant cutbacks. With elections in France and Germany this year, both countries have expressed concern at Russian propaganda seeking to undermine public confidence in their political institutions.

All of this has led to a crisis in public communication. Many saw it coming. In 2013 the World Economic Forum published a report on what it called “Digital Wildfires”:

“The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber-attacks and the failure of global governance.”

Today, Americans trust in the fairness of the mass media has dropped to the lowest level in Gallup’s polling history – with just 14% of Republican voters saying they are confident the media is fair.

Dr Uwe Kruger of the University of Leipzig says distrust of the media in Europe has always been widespread. But today, people express it more loudly than ever before.

“On many issues there is a gap between the views of elites and the mass of ordinary people. Elites govern against the opinion of significant parts of the population. This might be justified or not – but when journalists follow the elite discourse like a shadow and cover, explain and rationalise the political decisions, then many people see politicians and journalists as a common caste that rules against their interests.”

In the new age of populism, the media is one of the first institutions to suffer. At heart, the public are often unable to distinguish online between well researched news and information from reliable sources, PR, propaganda, advertising, activism or simply gossip or innuendo. The merging of news and opinion has left many deeply confused between facts and assertion. A recent study by Stanford University found 82 % of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between sponsored content and real news or see any potential conflict of interest between them. An IpsosMori survey for Buzzfeed found fake news fools Americans 75% of the time.

The secret algorithms of social media are feeding this distrust. We are now aware of the filter-bubble effect – where our views are reinforced through our online social networks of like-minded people. And how search sites have been gamed to offer results from extremist sites or how algorithms cannot distinguish between iconic war photography and child pornography. These are examples highly brand-damaging for the technology companies – and yet expecting them to take on a broader social responsibility may not be realistic or desirable.

Facebook and Google are globally dominant in their fields and have huge influence over the information we receive and share. They are highly profitable with little public accountability. Yet, as the media strategist Frederic Fallout has noted, we should not expect them to take on broader social roles :

“Facebook might have created a global community but its component are utterly segregated and fragmented. Facebook is made up of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions … maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm. The company will never jeopardise its money machine for mere social considerations.”

For some this offers a case for regulation. But Jeff Jarvis, Professor at New York University, offers this warning:

“Beware what you wish for. Do we really want to set up Facebook or Google as the censors of the world? Do we want them to decide what is real and fake, true and false?”

Without care, the cure may be worse than the disease. Jonathan Albright worries that a reaction against fake news may impede free speech.

“The next era of the infowars is likely to result in the most pervasive filter yet: it’s likely to normalise the weeding out of viewpoints that are in conflict with established interests….In the coming decade, Al-powered smart filters developed by technology companies will weigh the legitimacy of information before audiences ever get a chance to determine it for themselves.”

In circumstances akin to a perfect storm, contributing to the problem is the economic decline of many traditional media organizations. The advertising supported business model for print is clearly failing, with digital revenues not yet at a level to support major newsgathering or institutional resources.

Thousands of journalists have been made redundant, and increasingly newspapers fall back on cheap opinion rather than expensive newsgathering. Broadcasters too are beginning to suffer – and around the world political support for public broadcasting is faltering. If the traditional pillars of public communication are cracking, the new ones are proving unreliable, and parties for commercial or political gain are seeking to spread confusion – what is to be done?

We should be in no doubt that without trusted sources of reliable information, and without the media pursuing public accountability, the democratic structures of western societies will fail. The solution has to lie in our own hands. At every level from government, through business, to education and at a personal level people have to think more critically about the information they consume and share. And that’s appropriate in a time when we are all media creators. Every click or share helps define our popular culture. So perhaps we all need to take greater responsibility for the consequences. We all contribute to the environment the media reflects – so we should place greater emphasis on transparency and accountability of media sources, on the use of evidence and data, and value rather than decry diversity of views.

In 1954 the American broadcaster Edward R Murrow made a famous stand against Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti communist witch hunt with its many false accusations and the corrosive effect it was having on American society. He concluded the programme with words we might bear in mind now.

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. Whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it and rather successfully. Cassius was right.The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck.”