Blighting the Fourth Estate: Fake News and New Democracy

Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year is ‘post-truth’. The traditional reporter’s dependency on cold, impartial facts has been upended by persuasive satire, deception, and radicalism. Stories that fit snugly into one’s worldview are far more attractive than those that force them to think critically about their assumptions. Stories that outright lie to validate one’s feelings and justify what they think society should value draw attention in the mind and in the media.

Social networks are at least partially to blame, for they comprise the powerful apparatus of ad-revenue by which the journalism companies that publish misleading headlines, made-up statistics, and imaginary events can sustain themselves. An article that embraced the Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump was clicked, skimmed, shared, and retweeted far more the articles that sought to bring truth to the lie.

Image courtesy of Shotput © 2014, public domain.
Image courtesy of Shotput © 2014, public domain.

Information shapes the way that we see the world and how we act in it. If one goes to the ballot box believing that Angela Merkel has condoned child marriages, they are less likely to vote for her party’s taxation plans, even if the voter had thought those policies were best for them. Making election decisions based on well-propagated lies disrupts democracy when It dissuades people from pursuing their preferences.

How, then, do these stories get traction? The likely culprits are that they are sensational and believable. On platforms like Twitter where buzzwords and images often say far more than nuanced analysis, the regular reader thumbing at their phone is more likely to retweet the headlines that make them laugh or let them say ‘I told you so’. Validation makes us feel secure, and people develop sympathies to one another by sharing the narratives that make themselves and their supporters feel good. Challenges to our worldview discomfort us, and our political circles tend to be insular. If it is at the expense of other circles, and embarrasses or delegitimises them, it is even better. Rarely does one on social media feel obligated to fact-check, especially if it seems reasonable. Feelings are often more persuasive than facts, and as such the former, rather than the latter, can easily become the standard of truth.

The widespread dissemination of falsehoods that outpace every effort to correct them played a role in the American election and the Brexit referendum, but it has even more grim impacts for nascent democracies. Americans energized to leave their workplaces and campaign for the candidate they believe to be supported by their role models, rather than on the promises of policy action hurts the decisive power of their votes. However, when Chad and Uganda have to ban Facebook before elections fearing popular conspiracy, delivering impartial information to critical demographics emerges as a nearly insurmountable challenge.

The citizens of poorer, younger democracies are more susceptible to the persuasive power of fake news sites because the investigative press has had less time to become an institution in itself. News outlets in these states tend to have fewer rights to criticise and pursue stories of importance to voters, and often have less experience, and thus reputation, for doing so effectively when they do. Not only is it harder for them to debunk rumours, but it is difficult for fair information to reach communities lacking electronic connections to this information. For those without constant internet access, the reliance on word-of-mouth foments misinformation. Those glued to their cell phones are challenged by the sheer amount of information given to them, and are left wondering who to trust.

When news organisations become mere commentary companies that cement a worldview upon the masses rather than encouraging critical discourse, they energise populist demagogues, just as new democracies aim to escape despotic governments and entrust power to accountable institutions. Even if the stories read by voters are not reliant on outright lies, heavily misleading and misinterpreting the words and actions of public figures unjustly shapes people’s perceptions. Social media platforms have become the breeding grounds of virality for fake news. For democracies generally and developing ones especially, the media must stand as a pillar of politics rather than a capitalist enterprise. When the media is built to distribute commercials and merchandise, it often comes at the expense of investigative power or impartial reporting.

A quarter of the world’s population have Facebook accounts. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s creation intends to work as a platform upon which news companies can transmit their message to the masses, but any policy it pursues regarding fake news pits its obligations to the media and to the public against each other. Like Google, the social media company condemns the publication and virality of websites that deceive the public. Unlike newspaper companies, it is far easier for the fringe and deceptive to espouse their rhetoric online, and a justification may be warranted for better regulating electronic channels of information.

Recognising that it has the power to curtail fake news articles and their distributors, Facebook is seeking solutions that can mitigate the virality of fake news without stepping in as an arbiter of truth or a regulator of speech. Hiring editors to look over the vast web of media stories published every day is as open to bias as it is infeasible, but the reorganisation and deployment of algorithms that detect suspicious wording that automatically flags the sensational and unlikely for review may make for a fair tune-up to an otherwise self-sustaining machine.

Debate regarding the role of social media giants in regulating their content aside, governments have considered various measures by which to mitigate fake news’ effects. It is not unusual for Facebook to make concessions to governments in order to operate in their countries. Angela Merkel, for example, has called for platforms to publish their rankings of media sites so that social media users can at least have some perspective when confronted with the unbelievable. However, the rankings on those scales are also subject to criticism, especially by the companies relegated the bottom, who may redouble their deceptive efforts in response.

While of course, the public should scrutinise with vigilance the news it reads, the forces surrounding media consumption, and even human nature itself, ensure a complicated and dizzying pursuit. Governments, media platforms, and news distributors themselves are attempting to distil a sea of lies, challenging virality with veracity. The dissemination of falsehoods suppresses facts and intensifies feelings. It justifies hatred and impedes progress. The sensational and non-factual can and should be confronted, but the method by which this opposition manifests remains open to debate. Free speech is important to democracies, but a well-informed electorate is even more so.

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