‘Democracy or Despotism? The Renaissance of Dark Powers’ is the title of the 2017 M100 Sanssouci Colloquium. The conference is taking place at a critical juncture where responsibilities of media organisations as well as of technology companies in safeguarding democracy are being reconsidered and readjusted to new developments. While democratic societies depend on quality in journalism, this quality is not any longer taken for granted. Online sources and recently social media are heavily challenging older practices and altering the landscape. The situation becomes more perplexed due to the developing automatisation of interaction and content production in social platforms, though pre-programmed algorithms, the so called social bots.
Within this framework, the explosion of fake news and their dissemination in social networks can pose a serious risk on societies. The risk is vacillating from manipulating the attention of consumers towards specific products to influencing stock markets and promoting specific beliefs. It also undertakes a political dimension in an era where populism and illusions are gaining ground. A recent study by Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser and Florin Buechel, for instance, argues that social media give populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages accordingly. Pessimists go further and seeing cyberattacks growing believe that fake news can even initiate wars without bloods
Amid uncertainty for the future, journalists, scholars and technology experts are laying emphasis on researching the impact of fake news as well as potential remedies to limit their diffusion and protect democratic societies. Despite the widespread usage of the term in the media and public discourse – especially in relation to the 2016 US election and Donald Trump – there is a dearth of evidence about its scale, spread and effects. The debate is flourishing and the number of questions is perhaps higher than that of answers. Data and views often prove to be contradictory and new developments tend to challenge already-made observations.
What Numbers Suggest
Fake news is a relatively new term in the literature of political communication. Its very substance can be traced back in the past though. The bending of truth for political benefits has a long history and several examples can be identified in the 19th and 20th century. The fundamental difference in comparison to the past is that the recent rise of online and social media is widely considered a catalytic factor facilitating the spread of false stories. On the whole, the term fake news refers to the publication of news items which is misleading readers. It is not always clear whether the process should be described as misinformation or disinformation. Also, a consistent definition is lacking. As Damian Tambini argues the term might be related ‘to a range of phenomena: from deliberately misleading attempts to undermine elections or national security at one end of the continuum to any view that challenges consensus group think on the other’.
The deliberate distortion of news and their dissemination via social media is currently at the epicenter of attention. The power of social media as a source of information is gradually expanding in numerous countries. Starting with the US, a Pew Research Center study demonstrates that 62 percent of Americans get news on social media, with 18 percent of people doing so often. Percentages of users getting news on social platforms are 70 percent for Reddit, 66 percent for Facebook, 59 percent for Twitter, 31 percent for Tumblr and 23 percent for Instagram. Significant differences are emerging though in how active or passive each group of news users is in their online news habits more generally. Specifically, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram news users are more likely to get their news online mostly by chance, when they are online doing other things. By contrast, the portion of Reddit, Twitter and LinkedIn news users who seek out news online is roughly similar to the portion that happen upon it.
The 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News report also offers useful insights. Covering 26 countries – most of them European ones with the exception of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the US – the study shows that 51% percent across the entire sample uses social media as a source of news each week. As far as Europe is concerned, relevant percentages of respondents are 74 percent for Greece, 66 percent for Portugal, 64 percent for Hungary, 60 percent for Spain, 58 percent for Poland and 56 percent for Sweden and Denmark. Facebook is by far the most important network for finding, reading/watching, and sharing news with a percentage of 44 percent. YouTube follows with 19 percent, Twitter with 10 percent, WhatsApp with 8 percent, and Instagram as well as LinkedIn with 3 percent.
The usage of social media by citizens as a news source is combined with an ongoing fall in trust for traditional news media. A Gallup survey conducted before the 2016 US election exhibits the drop. 26 percent of respondents said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, constituting the lowest level in Gallup polling history. A similar tendency is observed in Europe. Research findings from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) outline that 48 percent of respondents across the EU tend not to trust written press, 46 percent tend not to trust TV and 34 percent tend not to trust radio. Of course, data are not homogeneous. With reference to TV, for example, the lack of trust is clearly apparent in Greece (54 percent), France (33 percent), and Spain (24 percent). Hungary, Cyprus and the UK follow with 20 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent respectively. Alternatively, respondents in other countries, namely Italy (7percent), Germany (25 percent) and the Netherlands (28 percent) still trust the TV, although percentages are not impressive.
The lack of trust in traditional media does not automatically generate confidence in the content provided in social media platforms, even if numerous citizens are accessing them. In the US, another Pew Research study suggests that social media is only trusted by a slim minority – only 4 percent of web using adults have a lot of trust in the information they find on social media and that rises to only 7 percent among those who get news on these sites. On the same wave-length, the afore-mentioned EBU study shows that people from Western European countries tend to trust social networks the least with indexes as low as -66 percent in France, -64 percent in Sweden, -55 percent in Germany and -50 percent in the UK. Concentrating on Germany, for example, a ZDF barometer displays that 67 percent of respondents believed that fake news were located in social networks. All in all, as the 2016 Reuters report finds out, only 24 percent of people said social media did a good job separating fact from fiction. Greece constitutes a remarkable exception probably due to the unique characteristics of its economic crisis.
The following question which is raised in the fake news era is how confidence in social media content can by determined by internet users. According to a new experimental study from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, what matters more is who shares news items. The initial results show that people who see an article from a trusted sharer – but one written by an unknown media source – have much more trust in the information than people who see the same article that appears to come from a reputable media source shared by a person they do not trust. All in all, notwithstanding the problematic quantitative measurement of the extent to which social media news are shaping public attitudes, the internet chaos certainly allows the publication and spread of fake stories which can inform people. The majority of US adults (64 percent) believe that fabricated news items cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.
The UK referendum of 23 June 2016 and the US election of 8 November 2016 have led several analysts to focus on the role of social media and fake news in allegedly influencing the result. Starting with Brexit, a widespread belief tends to associate the no vote with this role, although no causal connection is confirmed. Andrew Grice wrote in The Independent that ‘fake news handed Brexiteers the referendum’. Additionally, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, Peter Praet, party attributed the result of the referendum to ‘the decades-long development and spread of negative popular narratives about European integration’ by talking into account ‘how easily fake news can flourish nowadays’.
The Computational Propaganda Project deserves particular attention as it is providing some empirical evidence. Philip Howard and Bence Kollanyi have discovered bot accounts sharing and promoting messages supportive of both the Remain and Leave sides. Specifically, of 1.5 million tweets with hashtags related to the referendum sampled between 5 June and 12 June, they found that 54 percent were pro-Leave and 20 percent were pro-Remain but a third – half a million tweets – were generated by just 1 per cent of the 300,000 sampled accounts. Taken this, they find that political bots have a small but strategic role in the referendum conversations. By contrast, Robert Colvile sketches out a different dimension in his analysis for Columbia Journalism Review. He links the result of the referendum to the older age of voters and argues that although ‘print newspapers may be dying […] in their backing for Brexit they have won one last victory over the young social-media users who have abandoned them’.
As far as the US election is concerned, there is consensus that most discussed fake news stories favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Examples include fabricated stories that a FBI agent had been killed after leaking Clinton’s emails or that Pope Francis endorsed Trump. According to Craig Silverman, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets in the final three months of the US presidential campaign. In parallel with this, an Ipsos poll found that 75 percent of American adults being familiar with a fake news headline viewed the story as accurate. Within this context, several commentators are vocal. Max Read wrote in New York Magazine that he ‘won because of Facebook’ and Hannah Jane Parkinson argued in The Guardian that fake news helped him to ‘win a real election’.
Nonetheless it is premature to draw final conclusions. The ability of fake news to influence electoral behavior still remains questionable. Research conducted by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, for instance, rather challenge the view that fake news have been pivotal for the victory of Trump. In explaining their position, they argue that fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans. Specifically, they collect responses from interviewees on ‘which of the following was their most important source of news and information about the 2016 election which suggest that the four most common responses were cable TV, network TV, websites, and local TV. Social media was the fifth most common response with 14 percent of US adults listing them as their most ‘important’ news source. This argumentation is shared by Jacob L. Nelson who has found that the fake news audience is tiny compared to the real news audience – about 10 times smaller on average.
While research is ongoing, the discussion on what to do with fake news is lively. On the whole, the influence of social media platforms and technology companies is having a great effect on journalism. That is because companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have evolved beyond their role as distribution channels and have become publishers being able to control what audiences see. As Emily Bell and Taylor Owen suggest social media platforms rely on algorithms to sort and target content and they have not wanted to invest in human editing mainly to avoid costs. The advancement of technology has a tremendous impact on the job market and the afore-mentioned companies only constitute an example on how some working issues are settled by machines instead of employees.
The lack of human editing can theoretically prevent personal biases of editing. Nonetheless, it simultaneously allows algorithms alone to be play the critical role in providing information. Algorithms can be defined as steps to accomplish defined outcome often characterised by their ability to ability to effect large numbers of people through scale. Aiming at increasing revenues, technology companies see in algorithms a useful instrument to increase their impact on societies, even if produced and disseminated content is of poor quality. But an August 2017 article published in MIT Technology Review asserts that ‘social bots play a major role in spreading fake news’ suggesting that curbing social bots may be an effective strategy for mitigating the spread of online misinformation. During a recent conference organised by Harvard and Northeastern universities, participants proposed original ideas and focused, among others, on the need to provide ideologically compatible sources that confirm that particular news is fake as well as to make the truth ‘louder’. Likewise, Adam Berinski’s research concentrates on the constructive role ‘an unlikely source’ could play for refuting a rumor.
In response to the rise of fake news technology companies have already taken measures in order to prevent and block the publication of distorted news items. Although the number of sources producing misinformation on social media is constantly changing, there is much promise for socio-technical interventions because this number is relatively small. Facebook, for example, has started to rely on new analytical techniques to target fake accounts. These include the disruption of economic motivations, the removal of fake accounts through machine learning, the expanding verification of sources by collaborating with other organisations focusing on fact-checking and the facilitation of reporting fake news stories by ordinary Facebook users. So, after the company received criticism for allowing fake news stories to go viral before Trump’s victory, it targeted 30,000 fake accounts in the lead-up to the 2017 French presidential election. Facebook has also applied parts of this strategy to the US, Germany and the UK.
Moreover, Google decided to bar certain fake-news sites from its advertising network (AdSense). This means that such sites will not be able to earn money having the company place an ad on their site. The online search colossus also launched fact checking tools in collaboration with relevant organisations as Facebook had already done. As far as Twitter is concerned, the company is also taking some measures. For example, it is expanding mute, it is developing a hateful conduct policy prohibits specific conduct that targets people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation etc, and it is including special sessions on cultural and historical contextualization of hateful conduct.
Apart from technology companies, traditional media organisations are also attempting to respond as they are also encountered with an existential threat. The guarantee of quality to contradict false news items as well as the emphasis on professionalism are important. The theoretical objective is to re-establish their trust relationship with the listeners, viewers and readers. The BBC, for instance, is launching a new initiative, Slow News, which offers audiences, inter alia, ramped-up expertise, data journalism and social media fact-checking. Furthermore, as Ben Smith puts it ‘more reporting – and economics that support reporting in, on, and for audiences on the big platforms – is part of the answer’. The economic sustainability of traditional media organisations cannot be taken for granted though. It is debatable if citizens will be – in the long-term – prepared to pay subscriptions in spite of the increase monitored after the US election for titles such as The New York Times. The interest shown by some people in the serious press in recent months might be only a provisionary phenomenon and an emotional response to the rise of fake news.
Last but not least, the public perception on how to prevent the spread of fake news offers some useful insights. A Pew survey demonstrates that 45 percent said government, politicians and elected officials have a great deal of responsibility, roughly equal to the proportion who said a great deal of responsibility lies with members of the public (43 percent) and with social networking sites and search engines (42 percent). In the UK, whilst 77% percent of people thought that news organisations generating deliberately untrue content constitutes fake news and 79 percent say this is a problem, less than half (48 percent) reckon social media companies should block such content from their platforms. And in Germany, the majority of respondents (61 percent) regards fakes news as dangerous for democracy. 86 percent goes further and advocates for an appropriate legislation to prevent fake stories from being published in social networks.
Seeing the Glass Half-Full
The advent of social media as a political instrument has sparked an intense discussion. Initially, it generated widespread euphoria among scholars and journalists. They saw it as a driving force for democratisation and truth in open access platforms facilitating more participation of citizens in the political-process. Euphoria gave later its place to skepticism and the explosion of fake news, either exploited by ‘Dark Powers’ or not, is maximising concerns. Nonetheless, the dissemination of fabricated stories through social networks should not be blamed alone for structural flaws of the digital information environment. As founder of Snopes David Mikkelson puts it, ‘fake news is not a disease itself, it’s a symptom of a disease’. The possibility for citizens to form ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’ where they can be insulated from contrary perspectives, is not a new affair in the literature of political communication. By contrast, it has been analysed for years.
From another perspective, social media and technology companies – currently acting as distributors of news – are undertaking a role they had perhaps not anticipated when established. More importantly, they were not created principally to serve democratic values. In the final account, all these firms do not operate irrespective of day-to-day political and social developments. As long as democratic values in both the US and Europe are undermined, it is not fair to stigmatize only the factor of technology because it might offer fake news a pace. Also, citizens who tend to endorse falsified news items and welcome the argumentation of populist politicians surfing in the internet, are predisposed of doing so due to personal reasons and maybe existing problems they are facing. Anti-establishment tendencies could have been on the rise without social media and fake news.
To sum up, recent shifts in the media landscape and the technology sector have raised concerns about the vulnerability of democratic societies to fake news. Risks are apparent and might be bigger should ‘Dark Forces’ from either within or outside are regenerated gain ground as the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium explores this year. Alternatively, the glass can be seen as half-full. What matters more is not only the outbreak of a problem or a crisis but the will and insistence to overcome them. Counter-measures already taken by relevant firms, plans to improve the quality of traditional journalism – whether results appear offline or online – and the ongoing realization by people that Democracy needs to outflank Despotism constitute positive signs. In the final account, the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections had an obvious loser: fake news.