If prescription drugs contained as much fake content as the news coverage of the 2016 US presidential election, there would be wide demands for government action. But, it was only news.
However, “fake news” can be as poisonous to the body politic as fake pharmaceuticals are to human life. Since the election, self-styled satirist and political disrupter Paul Horner has expressed his fears that his fake news elected Donald Trump.
Democracy stands on fragile pillars of trust, accountability and responsibility. Only when they are in place do citizens willingly consent to be governed. And by choosing to live in a democracy, voters undertake the responsibility to be informed and engaged.
Their representatives, in response, are accountable to represent the balance of electorate interests, but are not delegates – as Edmund Burke established in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774.
Our democratic edifice rests on the informed voter. Fake news is the concrete cancer gnawing away at the structural integrity of our society.
Facebook, to date, has been a principal metastasising agent. But finally, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has acknowledged that Facebook is part of the problem. He has committed the company to remedial action.
Facebook has become a news agency, not just a technology company: almost 40% of American adults get their news online.
But then, editorial algorithms can only be so smart.
Je suis satire
Fake news has many faces – some old and familiar, some the product of new technology and the social media revolution.
The first category, satire, has been with us since Aristophanes was in short skirts. It is a necessary and healthy part of a democracy. Modern satire is often based on fake news. Examples abound in theatre, on television and on the internet – The Onion and the Betoota Advocate being two among many. This hoax was a classic, and successful.
The second category of fake news is all about money.
BuzzFeed recently revealed that the Macedonian town of Veles was home to more than 100 websites churning out pro-Trump news. The site was run by young Macedonians with no interest in US politics, but who had every interest in exploiting the advertising revenue from their linkage with AdSense. This guaranteed them income from every page view of their imaginative takes, real or imagined, on events in the US presidential election.
A third and darker category manufactures misleading news for political purposes. Sometimes it simply serves the ideological agenda of a political party; sometimes it is malicious in its falsehoods, seeking to foment distrust and dissent. The far right is particularly adept at this, like the Breitbart attack on successful immigrants from the Middle East.
Criminal intent could be a fourth category. Such sites might use fake news as an initial hook, but are more likely to rely on avarice, greed, lust or loneliness to complete the deception.
How does fake news work?
Fake news works in the same way as effective propaganda.
First, every story begins with factual elements, names, places and events. This forms a connection to the reader’s experience.
The story then moves in directions that accord with thoughts and attitudes the reader has or is predisposed to accept. Thus the particular success of the fake stories with Trump supporters, whose distrust – or hatred – for Democrat Hillary Clinton was visceral.
The story then supports the revelations with facts that are consistent with the imagined events, places them in settings that are generally familiar but less known: foreign cities, small town America, or sleazy porn outlets. The report then corroborates the tale by naming authoritative witnesses or actors who have carriage of the events.
And, crucially, the report adopts the style, presentation and format of genuine news. And it doesn’t help when the mainstream media pick up a story without checking.
Collectively, these elements are going to make Facebook’s task of eliminating fake news extraordinarily difficult without knowledgeable human intervention.
First, there is no substitute for individual scepticism. As has been said about money deals on the internet: “If it seems too good to be true, then it’s certainly not”.
The second is advertiser pressure. Zuckerberg is not responding to fake news out of the goodness of his heart. Advertisers don’t want to be tarred with a fake news association – so, they are saying, “change things”.
The third is source. The established media are failing to capitalise on their source credibility. They have abandoned the check and recheck practices of old in favour of a first to publish, first to correct mentality. That can change.
Perhaps we will see the emergence of a white net, where publishers commit to accuracy above all else, and capitalise on something British thinker David Ricardo would recognise as their competitive advantage. Yes, it would rely on subscriptions, but it would leave all the rest to a free grey net – one that no-one trusts for news.
Authors: Vincent O'Donnell, Honorary Research Associate of the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University