Barack Obama believes “fake news” is a threat to democracy. The outgoing US president said he was worried about the way that “so much active misinformation” can be “packaged very well” and presented as fact on people’s social media feeds. He told a recent conference in Germany:
If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.
But how do we distinguish between facts, legitimate debate and propaganda? Since the Brexit vote and the Donald Trump victory a huge amount of journalists’ ink has been used up discussing the impact of social media and the spread of “fake news” on political discourse, the functioning of democracy and on journalism. Detailed social science research is yet to emerge, though a lot can be learnt from existing studies of online and offline behaviour.
Matter of trust
Let’s start with a broad definition of “fake news” as information distributed via a medium – often for the benefit of specific social actors – that then proves unverifiable or materially incorrect. As has been noted, “fake news” used to be called propaganda. And there is an extensive social science literature on propaganda, its history, function and links to the state – both democratic and dictatorial.
In fact, as the investigations in the US and Italy show, one of the major sources of fake news is Russia. Full Fact, a site in the UK, is dedicated to rooting out media stories that play fast and loose with the truth – and there is no shortage.
An argument could be made that as the “mainstream” media have become seen as less trustworthy (rightly or wrongly) in the eyes of their audiences, it makes it hard to distinguish between those who have supposedly got a vested interest in telling the truth and those that don’t necessarily share the same ethical foundation. How does mainstream journalism that is also clearly politically biased – on all sides – claim the moral high ground? This problem certainly predates digital technology.
Bubbles and echo chambers
This leaves us with the question of whether social media makes it worse? Almost as much ink has been used up talking about social media “bubbles” – how we all tend to talk with people who share our outlook – something, again, which is not necessarily unique to the digital age. This operates in two distinct ways.
Bubbles are a product of class and cultural position. A recent UK study on social class pointed this out. An important subtlety here is that though those with higher “social status” may congregate, they are also likely to have more socially diverse acquaintance networks than those in lower income and status groups. They are also likely to have a greater diversity of media, especially internet usage patterns. Not all bubbles are the same size nor as monochromatic and our social media bubbles reflect our everyday “offline” bubbles.
In fact social media bubbles may be very pertinent to journalist-politician interactions as one of the best-defined Twitter bubbles is the one that surrounds politicians and journalists.
This brings back into focus older models of media effects such as the two-step flow model where key “opinion leaders” – influential nodes in our social networks – have an impact on our consumption of media. Analyses of a “fake news story” appears to point – not to social media per se – but to how stories moving through social media can be picked up by leading sites and actors with many followers and become amplified.
The false assumption in a tweet from an individual becomes a “fake news” story on an ideologically-driven news site or becomes a tweet from the president-elect and becomes a “fact” for many. And we panic more about this as social media make both the message and how it moves very visible.
Outing fake news
What fuels this and can we address it? First, the economics of social media favour gossip, novelty, speed and “shareability”. They mistake sociability for social value. There is evidence that “fake news” that plays to existing prejudice is more likely to be “liked” and so generate more revenue for the creators. This is no different than “celebrity” magazines. Well researched and documented news is far less likely to be widely shared.
The other key point here is that – as Obama noted – it becomes hard to distinguish fake from fact, and there is evidence that many struggle to do this. As my colleagues and I argued nearly 20 years ago, digital media make it harder to distinguish the veracity of content simply by the physical format it comes in (broadsheet newspaper, high-quality news broadcast, textbook or tabloid story). Online news is harder to distinguish.
The next problem is that retracting “fake news” on social media is currently poorly supported by the technology. Though posts can be deleted, this is a passive act, less impactful than even the single-paragraph retractions in newspapers. In order to have an impact, it would be necessary not simply to delete posts but to highlight and require users to see and acknowledge items removed as “fake news”.
So whether or not fake news is a manifestation of the digital and social media age, it seems likely that social media is able to amplify the spread of misinformation. Their economics favour shareability over veracity and distribution over retraction. These are not technology “requirements” but choices – by the systems’ designers and their regulators (where there are any). And mainstream media may have tarnished their own reputation through “fake” and visibly ideological news coverage, opening the door to other news sources.
Understanding this complex mix of factors is the job of the social sciences. But maybe the real message here is that we as societies and individuals have questions to answer about educating people to read the news, about our choice not to regulate social media (as we do TV and print) and in our own behaviour – ask yourself, how often do you fact-check a story before reposting it?