Fake news, journalism and democracy

Below is a complete chapter from Brian McNair’s 2018 book Fake News; I have reproduced the whole thing here primarily because it deserves as large an audience as possible. There are links to relevant materials throughout, these I have added to make sure readers can find the sources and assess them for themselves. I will carry on adding links as necessary.

Reference: McNair, B. (2018) Fake News: Falsehood, fabrication and fantasy in journalism. Routledge.

Ch.5 — Fake news and democratic political culture

The challenges and how to address them

We have examined the rise of fake news and its widespread application in a variety of contexts in the globalised public sphere of this, our digital era including by political actors of diverse ideological affiliations, commercially driven hackers and hoaxers, pranksters of various kinds, the security services of nation-states and media users in general. I have described the rise of the phenomenon of fake news as akin to a global panic’, so fierce and ubiquitous has been the debate as to its consequences and implications. But why the fuss if, as argued earlier, news journalism has never been without its flaws and critics: never been regarded as pure in its objectivity and democratic functionality? Media scholars more than most have built careers on the critique of main stream liberal journalism and the argument that it is pro-elite’, where elite is defined in terms such as ruling class, bourgeoisie, the patriarchy’ and so on.

The terminology of the dominant ideology thesis has changed over the decades and varies according to which group or community is doing the criticising at any given time, but the fundamental premise has remained — the media are agents of class, elite, gender or ethnic domination over masses who would otherwise be clamouring for radical social change. The media manufacture consensus, they ensure hegemony, they marginalise alternatives to the elite’s preferred solutions to our pressing socio-economic problems. So what if it is now the right who are the most vociferous (if not the only) advocates of mainstream media criticism and allegations of fake news in particular? So what if many allegations of fake news (if not all) reveal themselves to be based on untruths and falsehoods? Does it matter all that much, in the multiplatform, polyphonous environment of the GPS[Global Public Sphere], where virtually everyone has a public voice online and can choose whatever media they prefer, ignoring the rest?

It does matter, yes, and here’s why

Fake news can have immediate short-term impacts, illustrated by the case of Edgar Maddison Welch, sentenced to four years in prison for entering the Comet restaurant in Washington armed to the teeth and on the hunt for pro-Clinton paedophiles. He was responding to the pizzagate conspiracy theory and very clearly embodied an immediate, direct effect of a particularly high-profile piece of fakery which he took to be true. Fortunately, no one died in that incident, but many people could have.

The potential influence of the Russian government’s interference in the US presidential election has been discussed already and continues to be the subject of investigation, although no evidence of a direct effect has been presented. But could Russian dissemination of fake news, perhaps in collusion with Trump’s campaign team or others amongst his support in the United States, have shifted enough votes to influence the outcome, given that it was extremely close in many key swing states? In testimony to the US Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 Jeh Johnson, former home land security chief under the Obama administration, stated that:

To my current knowledge, the Russian government did not through any cyber intrusion alter ballots, ballot counts or reporting of election results. I am not in a position to know whether the successful Russian government-directed hacks of the DNC and elsewhere did in fact alter public opinion and thereby alter the outcome of the presidential election.

The January 2017 US Intelligence Community Assessment was similarly reluctant to assert any direct cause-and-effect link between Russian intervention in the election and Trump’s victory. No one, frankly, is in a position to know this with any degree of confidence, but the possibility cannot be excluded that in what was in the end a very tight presidential election, with Mr Trump winning a minority of votes but still taking the Electoral College, his slim majorities in key swing states may have made the difference between victory and defeat and that these majorities may have been boosted by fake news stories and strategically leaked information which was damaging to the Clinton campaign.

In other elections of recent times, such as the UKs 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, similar questions have been asked in the context of a wider debate about the democratic implications of digitalisation. The threats posed by a digitised public sphere are set out in some detail in a long investigative article by the Observers Carole Cadwalladr She reports evidence of connections between data analytics companies such as AggregateIq, key pro-Trump figures such as Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer and the UK Brexit campaign, which was effectively decided by around 600,000 votes either way (according to the director of the Leave.EU campaign, Dominic Cummings). The article sets out the strategic use of behavioural science and data manipulation to identify emotional triggers in some sectors of the electorate, sufficient to shift their vote”. Aside from the possibly illegal connections alleged between some of these actors in the course of the Brexit campaign, the article warns darkly of an authoritarian information system” emerging in the United States and the UK, underpinned by high-tech data manipulation and information dissemination. The issue identified here is not just fake news, although that may be a tool in such strategies, but the application of what are described as military psychological warfare techniques to domestic political campaigns.

Medium- and long-term impacts

Beyond the short-term impacts of fake news on particular electoral outcomes, we must be concerned about the corrosive effect of fake news on the integrity of the public sphere at all levels — globally, transnationally, nationally and locally. The progress of human civilisation since the early modem era has been built not least on a notion that Truth is a thing’, accessible through agreed procedures of experimental replication (science), verification and corroboration of sources and evidence (journalism) or rational informed debate based on either of the first two (deliberation). When Truth becomes a movable feast and belief in a flat Earth or that the Earth is 7,000 years old is regarded as equally valid to the accumulated evidence of science and human understanding — Turkey’s Islamic leader Erdogan in July 2017 permitted schools to stop teaching evolution, an approach to science echoed by many fundamentalist Christians in the United States and elsewhere — then human civilisation risks going backwards to the when a genius such as Galileo could be tortured for discovering that Earth was not the centre of the universe and daring to say so. Bizarrely, this is where the fake news phenomenon could take us.

Donald Trump has made it clear both before and since becoming president that he regards the concept of truth as negotiable and winning consent for one’s notion of truth as a key component of the Art of the Deal. At one press conference in February 2017 he stated that his 306 Electoral College votes has been the greatest victory in American political history”. When reminded that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had won more College votes, he responded that I was told, I was given that information”. Other examples of fake news being spread by the president include the allegation that some 3,000,000 of the votes cast in November 2016 were illegal, and thus his minority of the votes won was actually a majority. When challenged to provide any kind of evidence on this or other unsubstantiated statements, he would simply refer to articles he had read or things he had been told or assure his questioner that he would be proven correct in the end.

In March 2017 he was interviewed by Time magazine on his contentious approach to facts and responded to claims that he was dishonest by declaring to his interviewer, Michael Scherer: I can’t be doing so badly, because President and you’re not”. For Jonathan Chait in New York magazine:

Trump is not merely making an attack on truth here. He is attacking the idea of truth. His statement is a frontal challenge to the notion that objective reality can be separated from power. (Chait, 23 March 2017)

Nearly a year earlier the same journalist wrote a lengthy piece alleging that the then-GOP candidate was a wildly promiscuous liar” with disturbing authoritarian tendencies”. Detailing a few examples of the most obvious, some trivial (his assertion that Trump Steaks was still a going concern — it wasn’t), some deeply serious (the real unemployment rate in the United States was 42%, according to Trump-officially it was 9%) — Chait observed that his contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic account ability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment”. For Chait, at a time when Trump was still regarded as an unlikely winner in November and fake news’ was not yet a familiar term, this approach to the facts was evidence of his authoritarian tendencies. And as we have seen, an official rejection of the notion of objective truth is one feature of Putin’s Russia as it engages in hybrid information warfare with internal and external opponents. It is as if Trump and his team had absorbed the lessons of Putin’s success in holding on to power in Russia — democratically elected as the latter has been — and sought to apply it to the United States. In the United States, as Trump went on to show, respect for the verifiable truth was not as widespread amongst the electorate as most commentators, and virtually all previous presidential candidates, had assumed. Given a reality TV-driven cult of personality, a substantial proportion of the public’s genuine disenchantment with career political elites such as the Clintons and a chaotic communication environment populated by the likes of Infowars and Breitbart, the link between facts and truth was broken, and Trump took the White House.

All political actors are prone to manipulate facts in ways that suit their agendas, of course, There is much scope for interpretation and diverse reading of factual information, as Chapter 3 observed, and democratic politics require debate around meaning to be pursued vigorously. But as one Twitter user pointed out, comparing Trump with the approach of his two immediate predecessors, Obama never actively tweeted lies about Bush at random. He never pulled news from one person, with zero facts to back it up and blasted it across every platform”. There is a difference between the routine informational game playing of political actors and the systematic deployment of untrue facts’ at any and every opportunity.

In the article Chait compared Trump’s use of information to the scenario depicted in Orwells 1984, where truth shifts constantly in line with a regime’s shifting propaganda requirements. And every time there is a shift in the facts’, the previous set of facts’ is simply discarded, rendered invisible. There was no internet in 1984, however, and no capacity for Winston Smith to gain access to alternative sources of information or to communicate his own responses to the regime’s doublespeak. The control of information depicted in 1984 was possible because of the analogue media system which existed in the late 1940s when Orwell wrote the novel. Such a system no longer exists, and in the era of cultural chaos the potential for effective challenge to a Trump or a Putin is immeasurably greater than Orwell could imagine. Which is not to say that reason and rationality will prevail and that the descent of America and the west into authoritarianism amidst an onslaught of false, fake information will be prevented just because the internet exists. But it can be said with confidence that Trump is not having it all his own way and will not going forward.

The same globalised public sphere which disseminates his false information to his 100 million or so followers broadcasts the live testimonies before the congressional committee of former FBI Director James Comey and all of the other (still) authoritative voices who have emerged to directly contradict the president and even go so far as to accuse him in public of lying. Famously, Comey stated that he had made contemporaneous records of his one-on-one meetings with Trump because he did not trust POTUS to tell the truth about those meetings. No authoritarian regime, and not that many democratic ones, permits such openness and candour in the public sphere, and the fact that it exists in the United States is perhaps the greatest defence that the country, and the rest of the world, has against Trump’s despotic tendencies. He can spread fake news on his own account and accuse other of being fake news when they criticise him, but he cannot, as of this writing, silence the chaos of free and independent communication which flows around the American media system all day, every day, autonomously of central direction.

Public debate and scholarly concern around the fake news phenomenon is premised on the belief that by violating a core principle of liberal democracy — the need for free and independent media, for objective and reliable journalism as a support for the electoral process and also for effective critical scrutiny of political elites — the widespread dissemination of news’ that is deliberately fabricated undermines the democratic process. An informed citizenry in a deliberative democratic system requires, well, information that is accurate, honest and true by some commonly accepted criteria. The providers of information — journalists and their organisations — must be trusted, even though many of them will be partisan in various ways. One can read the Times or the Guardian and disagree with an editorial or commentary, but still expect that the news stories contained within are in some meaningful sense objective. The role of objective information in a mediated democracy does not preclude the publication of strong opinions or bias, especially if these characteristics of a particular writer are transparently signalled.

But if some news is fake and if citizens do not know which stories are fake and which are not, there is at least a theoretical risk that democratic outcomes can be influenced by malevolent producers of fabricated content. This possibility is the main cause of the outrage which greeted revelations that the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential campaign contributed to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory by flooding the US public sphere with anti-Clinton stories. Moreover, the well-founded belief that Russian state-sponsored hackers were behind at least some of this activity turned the issue into one of America’s national security itself. As of this writing, congressional investigations were ongoing into the role of the Russian government of Vladimir Putin in the dissemination of fake news in the 2016 US election campaign, and similar accusations were being made in relation to electoral processes in other countries.

On May 5, 2017, two days before the French presidential election, the Macron campaign announced that it had been the victim of a massive hack of emails containing financial and personal information which, if true, would have been damaging to the centrist candidate. French law prohibited the publication of this material in the 48-hour period before polling on Sunday May 7. but US websites such as GotNext did circulate or amplify it in a clear bid to shape the outcome of the election in favour of preferred right wing candidate Marine Le Pen. Nonetheless, Emmanuel Macron won the election with a large majority of 63 to 37, as had been forecast the final opinion polls of the campaign. EU President Donald Tusk congratulated Macron, and the French people, for choosing liberty, equality and fraternity over the tyranny of fake news’

What can we say, then, about the impact of fake news? Did it influence the Brexit vote of June 2016 narrowly in favour of Leave? Or the Trump Victory of 2016, which in the end came down to a few hundred thousand Voters in the rust belt state? I so, why did #Macronleaks fail to boost Le Pens vote? The losers in these campaigns Clinton in the United States, the Remain side in the UK have attributed at least some portion of their defeat to the strategic deployment of misinformation by their opponents. Others have suggested that these are misreadings of the outcomes by political actors who simply failed to detect seismic shifts in popular feeling about elites and their hitherto consensual ideas. And then there were key moments in these campaigns — FBI Director James Comey’s eve-of-poll letter to Congress for example, that Hillary Clinton’s alleged misuse of a private email server while Secretary of State was still under investigation (for reasons which he would not disclose). Or Nigel Farage’s use of an anti-migrant billboard with the theme of Breaking Point’ which echoed, intentionally or not, Nazi anti-semitic propaganda from another era of nationalist populism (McNair, 2017)1. Who could say that these and other specific interventions were not decisive in pushing just enough voters into support for populist, anti-elite campaigns? Some of the stars of the fake public sphere such as Alex Jones’ Infowars have been happy to take credit for their favoured candidate’s victory (as discussed earlier), but that does not mean their claims are true. In the case of #MacronLeaks, conversely, we might speculate that had the materials emerged earlier and been given more time to spread amongst the French electorate, Macron’s large majority could have been reduced or even wiped out. As it was, they were leaked only hours before voting commenced, in the period when by convention French media stop covering the campaigns.

We will never know, but it could be that the legal constraint to publication in that case — and this was unrelated to the status of the leaks as fake news’ or embarrassing truth; the French media election purdah is a blanket ban on editorialising and propagandising for either candidate within the 48-hour period up to polling closes — prevented a different outcome from the one which greeted the world on Monday, May 8 and that there are lessons to be learnt by other democratic polities from the French experience. I will address that suggestion further later.

For now, though, and in the context of complex communication systems involving millions of individual actors, we must conclude that there is no way to isolate the effects of a particular political message on a process such as an election, although it is possible — necessary indeed, for the future integrity of the democratic structures we seek to preserve in the face of cultural chaos — to better understand how strategic intervention of the type promoted by Putin’s hackers or the American alt-right bloggers can divert or deflect movements in public opinion in the course of campaigns, especially where they are closely fought. Those who lose elections will always tend to look for scapegoats, and the presence of fake news in a campaign is a convenient alibi for politicians who may have failed for more funds mental reasons than the malevolently timed dissemination of a damaging news story, be it true or false. But the possibility that fake news could affect electoral and other democratic political outcomes — to the advantage of left, right or any other affiliation — is real and requires creative response from various stakeholders.

Responses to fake news: regulatory

Some observers have suggested that there is a role for governments and state regulators of information to play in the struggle against fake news. Just as regulation and law in some countries prohibit certain types of information both online and offline, such as hate speech and incitement to violence is it possible to police fake news in an analogous manner? Regrettably not for the simple reason that it is often state political actors who are issuing the content accused of being fake. It would seem foolhardy to allow a Donald Trump. Vladimir Putin or Rodrigo Duterte the legal authority as executive powers in their respective countries to categorise some information as fake’ and then proceed to suppress it. This would simply open the door to political censorship, of which there is already a great deal in too many nations.

Perhaps it might be practical to identify some forms of news’ as fraudulent, in that it presents as true but is knowingly false and may be disseminated so as to attract online users and thus advertising revenue. This, as we have seen, is the motive behind some prominent fake news providers. But then we have the challenge of identifying the original source of the fake, as opposed to those who spread it genuinely believing it to be true. Even the combined resources of the US intelligence community struggle to prove that Russia was behind some of the more blatant digital transgressions of the 2016 election race, and competent cyber-warriors have many tools at their disposal with which to preserve anonymity.

That a task is difficult is not a reason to run away from it, on the other hand, and several governments and official bodies are currently engaged in searching for ways to address the fake news challenge. In the United Kingdom a House of Commons select committee began inquiring into a range of issues raised by the fake news phenomenon in January 2017, on the basis that it is a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general”. Questions being asked by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which ceased its work with the calling of the 2017 general election, included:

What is fake news’? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?

What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?

Written evidence to the inquiry included a submission from a research scientist, Dr Dominic Thorrington, making the point that an official verification scheme for news media would carry risks of political interference by government or quasi-state bodies and would be unlikely to win support in societies which value free and independent media. And indeed since, as I have argued earlier, the accusation of fake news is very often a form of political attack rather than an engagement with the veracity of the information contained in the offending report, it seems obvious that if someone like President Trump had the power to regulate the media on the grounds of fakery, he would use it to combat journalistic opponents, as authoritarian leaders all around the world routinely do. The Guardians Peter Preston points to the various approaches to regulation of social media adopted by democratic governments such as in Germany and more authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian regimes such as that of Erdogan in Turkey and Russia.

Some countries — say Russia — have bent social media to their own purposes. The internet is just another tool in propaganda warfare. Some countries — say Turkey — have sought to wipe media communities off the map by presidential fiat, while others — say China — have erected their own, carefully supervised, alternatives. Some countries — say Germany — have threatened chunky fines if Facebook doesn’t take down offensive posts within 24 hours… National perspectives on the threat of Google and Facebook depend entirely on which nation we’re talking about, what system of government and what perspective. (Preston, 14 May 2017)

The Chinese government, reported the Huffington Post, believes that Americans could learn something from China about dealing with fake news”, which may not be an entirely reassuring observation. The article cited Chinese media researcher David Bandurski2 on the point that generally speaking, facts are hostile to authoritarian systems. These systems are rejoicing now because the commitment to truth seems to be failing in more democratic and open societies”. The Chinese authorities, noted Bandurski. find it interesting that US political actors now engage in the attempt to delegitimise problematic (in their view) news content by denigrating it as fake’, which is, of course, standard operating procedure for authoritarian regimes around the world (Ford, 31 May 2017).

That, as we have seen, is indeed what is happening in many examples of alleged fake news’. But a Chinese solution to regulating the problem would hardly improve matters, because it would permit the current US president, and any successor, whether of left or right persuasion, the power of censorship over the Fourth Estate. President Trump has already caused some controversy by openly declaring his admiration for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (Guardian ), who compared himself to Hitler when he said that he wished he could exterminate 3,000,000 drug users in his country. In a private phone call to Duterte, Trump declared his endorsement of the tough line towards drug abuse.

If, and notwithstanding Trump’s unashamedly transparent support for murderous dictators in several countries, the risks of a descent by liberal democracies into authoritarian patterns of information control is unlikely, it can hardly be ruled out given the entirely unpredictable political environment we currently inhabit. For that reason, if no other, supporting state population of journalism to screen out fake’ news from the rest would be extremely dangerous. The fake news phenomenon is not a debate primarily about evidence or facts, but a struggle for legitimacy around journalistic accounts of events. It is essentially political.

Media organisations

A preferable approach is to put pressure on media organisations themselves to improve and strengthen their fact-checking processes. Many have done so already, and many have been engaged in public, transparent fact-checking activity for many years (Graves, 2016).

Long before fake news became a meme, as noted earlier, the need for publics and audiences to have better information about the veracity and honesty of information was recognised and being built into editorial procedures. Moreover, satisfying this need is not merely a matter of good public relations, but a potentially powerful brand factor. In the hypercompetitive GPS, there is real marketing value in successfully presenting as a news organisation which can be trusted. That trust can be based on reputation (as for the BBC and comparably rigorous public service organisations and leading commercial brands too). But it must also be based on transparent structures and practices, which news consumers can recognise as providing at least some degree of protection against outright fakery.

We saw in Chapter 2 that many very prestigious news organisations have been had in the past by rogue journalists or sources and that this was a factor in the gradual decline of trust in journalism seen in recent decades. Restoring that trust, and at the same time addressing the short-term problem of fake news, makes sound commercial as well as ethical and civic-duty sense, a connection increasingly recognised by media organisations-even before the onset of fake news — which seek to compete on the (admittedly contentious) criteria of quality’.

Recent research indicates that traditional media organisations are regarded better at distinguishing fact from fiction in news than soCial media. According to the News & Media Research Centre at Canberra University of those surveyed by YouGov viewed traditional news outlets as more le in this regard, as compared with 27% who thought social media did a better job. We can explain this finding with reference to the associated finding that, in general, people still trust established news brands more than the online start-ups which the globalised public sphere. This is not to assume that the former deserve that degree of trust, but it is fair to say that decades, sometimes centuries, of largely reliable journalistic provision iconic brands such The Times, the BBC, the ABC (in Australia) and the New York Times gives them a competitive edge over online brands with which people are unfamiliar when comes assessments of trust.

Notwithstanding the highly publicised fakes described in Chapter 2, media consumers tend to recognise that these were exceptional transgressions, severely punished when they were uncovered. The rise of online news providers, on the other hand, has coincided with (and indeed been made possible by) a technological environment in which information flows with unprecedented speed and reach and in which truth and falsity are therefore more difficult to identify and rectify in a timely manner. All that said, both established news brands and providers, including the social media behemoths such Facebook and Twitter, have responded to the fake news phenomenon by developing mechanisms to filter out the fake from the fact.

Particular complicity in the fake news phenomenon has been ascribed to Facebook, Google and other social media platforms (Gu al., 2017)3, which have become a major platform for the dissemination of news, steadily growing in their importance within the GPS. As we noted earlier, Facebook’s use of algorithms to manage shared content has led to several cases of inappropriate censorship, as well as permitting problematic content to get online. Facebook has been accused of permitting the spread of hate speech and other ethically problematic content by automation of the curation process and has very publicly employed thousands of staff better moderate its users, including on the spread of fake news. In April 2017 it posted an educational tool” titled Tips to spot false news prepared in conjunction with the UK-based Full Fact fact-checking site. Facebook used the term false’ rather than fake’ news because, according one report,

fake news’ has taken life of its own, and false news’ more accurately communicates that it’s talking about intentionally false content that tries be confused with legitimate news. After all, Donald Trump has begun labelling as fake news’ any opinions or facts with which he disagree.

The advice included:

  • Be sceptical of headlines
  • Investigate the source
  • Inspect the dates
  • Check the evidence

Civic-cultural responses

It would be neither prudent from the individual citizen’s perspective nor entirely fair on the profession of journalism to expect media organisations to do all the fact checking and screening of fake news that is now demanded by the scale and complexity of the GPS. To understand how good journalism is made — by which I mean honest, reliable journalism, partisan or not which, if not always 100% factually accurate, at least aspires to be the most objective and truthful it can be — should be recognised as a modern-day life skill. To that extent, the role of media organisations, educators and researchers in demystifying the news production process is crucial to bringing cognitive order and epistemological awareness back to the public sphere and our engagement as citizens with it. Journalism, media and communications students already learn at least some of those skills, and one might suggest that all students, from school through university and college, should have access to knowledge about the history and meaning of key concepts such as objectivity. Dan Gillmor’s (free) online book. Mediactive (2010). makes a compelling case for just that approach at a time when information overload’ was deemed to be a growing challenge for digital media users. In the era of fake news Gillmor’s book will reward today’s students with practical tools enabling them to use the internet as a resource, both in sourcing reliable information and in identifying the unreliable.

Contributing to this outcome is a growing number of websites which seek to identify the sources of fake news, as well as individual fake news stories. Snopes.com is one such, as is Hoaxy, and Wikipedia recently established WikiTribune, The US-based Public Data Lab maintains a Field Guide to Fake News [which] explores the use of digital methods to trace the production, circulation and reception of fake news online”.

Hoaxy was established by researchers at Indiana University and allows users to track the spread of claims made in the media, including fake claims As they put it, the goal of the platform is to reconstruct the diffusion networks induced by hoaxes and their corrections as they are shared”. Claire Wardle and others at the Tow Centre have produced A Field Guide to Fake News’. Jimmy Wales launched WikiTribune in April 2017 as a resource for bringing journalists and a community of volunteers together” in order to assemble fact-based evidence and thus weed out or identify fake news. The platform is dependant for its long-term survival4 on user contributions and crowdsourcing time will tell if there is sufficient commitment from the digital generation to enable it to succeed. Fact Checking and anti-fake news websites are just as fragile in the digital media business environment as any others.

We scholars and researchers, who have long critiqued the mainstream media, now find ourselves confronted by a much more vicious assault on the media from current political elites in the United States and elsewhere (often using the language developed by critical media studies from the 1970s onwards).

Media (and journalism) studies remain the subject of frequent disdain from many in the professional media and political spheres, but now, more than ever, is a time when digital media literacy becomes an important support of democratic political cultures, empowering individuals to play proactive role in assessing the status of the information they access online. Academic researchers must ask with greater urgency if there are ways in which educators and media practitioners can promote more sophisticated levels of media and digital literacy amongst the publics of democratic societies, enabling them to more effectively sift and sort objective journalism from fakery and falsehood and to understand the processes involved in viral information spread. There is an urgent need for work on the development of social media and big data analytics to assist in identifying the sources of fake news and the networks down which it flows, to whom and with what effect.

Scholars around the world are already doing this work (Bakir and McStay 2017)5, and some of the recent works cited in this book provide valuable data and insight into how, for example, the automated, algorithmic logics of social media platforms can tend to amplify the deviant’ forms of fake news, often without much human intervention beyond the initial seeding of a false story. Such resources are often free online. In addition, we must ask if the long-established normative principles of liberal pluralist journalism — such as the key practice of objectivity — are adequate to protect news users and audiences from deception and manipulation by fakers, on the one hand, and political actors such as the United States president, on the other.

None of these approaches in isolation will address the challenges of the fake news phenomenon, but it is to be hoped that as the debate progresses and the Trump presidency staggers from one controversy to another amidst a worsening international political environment in which the risks of great power conflict are increasing, all those who have the capacity to expand the resources and tools required for public as well as professional filtering of fakery will contribute what they can to the effort. It is no exaggeration to say that the sustainability of our liberal democratic cultures in the coming years will depend on it.

  1. McNair, B.  (2017)  An introduction to political communication.  Taylor & Francis.↩︎

  2. For example, see: Gang, Q. and Bandurski, D.  (2011)  China’s emerging public sphere: The impact of media commercialization, professionalism, and the Internet in an era of transition”.  In Shirk, S. L. (Ed.) Changing media, changing China. Oxford University Press.↩︎

  3. Trend Micro TrendLab Research paper: Gu, L., Kropotov, V., and Yarochkin, F. (2017). Exploring the online economy that fuels fake news. Also see: Gu, L., Kropotov, V., and Yarochkin, F. (2017). The fake news machine: How propagandists abuse the internet and manipulate the public. TrendLab Research Report (Trend Micro).↩︎

  4. It didn’t survive… SPKB↩︎

  5. Bakir, V. and McStay, A.  (2018)  Fake news and the economy of emotions: Problems, causes, solutions.  Digital journalism,  6(2):154–175↩︎

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