Oxford dictionaries have just announced their 2016 word of the year: ‘Post-truth’. This is apt, given the ever expanding chorus of voices announcing the onset of the ‘post-truth age’. While we were hardly in an ‘era of truth’ beforehand, there are justifiable grounds for concern, and things have become worse. It is true that most of the complaints have emanated from those on the losing sides of Brexit and Trump’s election, but the debasement of public discourse has worrying implications for politics and society as a whole.
Donald Trump has a track record of duplicitous behaviour, but in the recent Presidential election he received help in this regard from elsewhere. His victory pushed the increasing prevalence of ‘fake news’ on the internet, particularly on Facebook, to centre stage. 1
While many of the social media ‘fake news’ providers also rely on distortion or cherry-picking the facts, complete fabrications are far more common than in the mainstream media. The biases of a potential audience are used to secure attention and acceptance. The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance means people are likely to accept messages which fit their pre-existing beliefs, and reject information that challenges them. Online, this often leads to echo chambers, where people with similar views share information amongst themselves, isolated from dissenting voices. 2
The use of algorithms makes this problem worse. Content is selected for display based on a user’s previous preferences, rather than on veracity. Until recently, Facebook employed a team to verify items appearing in the site’s trending bar. However, once it became known that right-wing stories were being filtered out with more regularity, the human editors were sacked after Republicans complained. The company’s management feared that appearing partisan would alienate some of their users. Now, free to appear on the trending bar, falsehoods get even more exposure.
This offers an obvious opportunity for those wishing to promote their political movement or ideology, but there is also a financial incentive. One startling example of this is a town in Macedonia where a cottage industry of fake news organisations appeared, pumping pro-Trump stories onto Facebook. This wasn’t due to any political motivation – such stories just got the most exposure, making more money. 3 This points to a noticeable trend: though it does of course happen across the political spectrum, fake news is much more of a problem on the right than on the left. 4
Although the outcomes of the two votes were also the result of many other factors, victories by two campaigns laced with falsehoods and distortion, and the media’s failure to combat them, offer a perverse incentive for others to behave in the same manner. Rather than ushering in a new age of informed debate, the internet has instead allowed a destructive impulse to run rampant. People’s propensity to seek validation for their beliefs, not to mention the complexity of the world, make honest attempts to transmit information hard enough, as the failings of the traditional media shows.
In Flat Earth News, the journalist Nick Davies lists a number of falsehoods circulated by the press, such as misconceptions about heroin usage and the Millennium Bug, while Halloween marked the anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. 5 Although it entered popular imagination as an episode of mass hysteria, this was largely a myth propagated by the press. Of course, media organisations also push their own political views. While this is usually achieved through subtler means than outright lying, completely false stories have been used as smears, such as when the Zinoviev letter was published in the Daily Mail prior to the 1924 General Election, with the intention of demonising the Labour Party.
The supposed ‘golden age’ of news reporting, often lamented, thus never really existed. Yet the last few decades have seen decline. Shrinking circulations and advertising revenues have put more pressure on media organisations, especially newspapers. This has led to cut backs and the disappearance of many specialist reporters, and the remaining journalists are required to produce more copy. Combined with the rise of the internet, which allows journalists to conduct search-engine research from their desks, it has led to the rise of ‘Churnalism’.
Although a central element, the mass media has only ever been one part of a wider knowledge system. 6 People have always relied on other sources of information, from day-to-day conversation, to specialised literature. Online ‘fake news’ is merely entering this ecosystem. That is not to downplay its importance: online influence can be spread by word of mouth. In turn, it is likely that many have been left susceptible to it because they cannot judge the quality and trustworthiness of information sources, and have been used to the poor example set by many media organisations. 7
I would argue that older media helped lay the foundations for recent events. The power of the media to influence is often limited in the short run, but accrues through the build-up of constant exposure. In the UK, the longstanding anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of the tabloid press laid the groundwork for the referendum result.
In the US, Fox News is rightly attacked for its malign practices, but a whole host of smaller media enterprises, such as cable TV channels and radio shock jocks, have for decades also promoted sensationalism and conspiracy theories. 8 These other forms of media have played their part in a wider Culture War, which has also seen assaults on science and the education system. 9
The debate which has now sprung up about the quality of reporting and public discourse is long overdue. There are two main conclusions to take away from recent events. As researchers we need to get a grip on how, and why, information travels in the way it does. Appreciating the short and long-term processes of information transmission and attitude formation is vital for understanding historical change.
The systemic failings of the media environment also need addressing. Audiences must be helped to develop information literacy. Media companies, old and new, should take more responsibility, or, if they fail to do so, should be held to account for their actions. 10 Both of these objectives will be supremely difficult undertakings. But the stakes are too high to shirk the task. 11
Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines the coverage of economic ideas in the British inter-war daily press, charting how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers. You can find Aaron on twitter @AaronAckerley and @RaidersFilmBlog.
Image: Donald Trump speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, courtesy of Gage Skidmore [via Flickr, Creative Commons Licence].
- Similar problems can be found on other sites as well, such as with the countless conspiracy theory videos on Youtube. An article erroneously naming Trump as winner of the popular vote also appeared as the top result on Google Search, but the company soon responded. ↩
- Many commentators have explained the apparent unexpectedness of the results by arguing that the media – or liberal – elite were in an echo chamber of their own, and hence missed the popular mood in the UK and US. ↩
- As the original report on the Macedonian news farms notes: ‘Earlier in the year, some in Veles experimented with left-leaning or pro–Bernie Sanders content, but nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content.’ ↩
- One notable example is an enduring image that features a false quote attributed to Trump, where he is purported to have claimed that if he were ever to run for President he would run as a Republican, as they ‘are the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News’. ↩
- A fantastic investigative journalist who broke the phone hacking case, Davies’ recent retirement now seems prophetic in light of the problems facing journalism. ↩
- Different forms of media also influence each other. For example, newspapers often set the agenda, which TV and radio news then follow. ↩
- One fake news purveyor stated: ‘They print actual news stories but put such ridiculous spin on them that they border over into fake news’, continuing that if ‘Facebook is going to penalise fake sites, they should also penalise real news sites who I think are guilty of far worse crimes than me.’ ↩
- Of particular note, the evangelical Christian vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Trump. This demographic has long had its own thriving media, which has had noticeable effects at other times. ↩
- Notable examples have been attempts to have Intelligent Design placed on school science curriculums, and, most importantly, longstanding attempts to discredit the scientific evidence for climate change. ↩
- Recent statements from Google and Facebook suggest they are going to try and combat the ‘fake news’ epidemic. Old media companies, especially tabloid newspapers, seem unlikely to commit to addressing their own problems and abuses, or even to admit to them. ↩
- As Zeynep Tufekci, a researcher who has been documenting the effects of ‘fake news’ for some time, cautions: ‘Letting this stand is not neutrality; it amplifies the dangerous currents roiling the world. When Facebook is discussed in tomorrow’s history books, it will probably not be about its quarterly earnings reports and stock options’. ↩
This sounds like a call for back-door censorship by yet another disgruntled academic activist. ‘Audiences must be helped to develop information literacy’. By whom? Let me guess: the educated types of the new clerisy, perhaps? In this scenario, academic experts will selflessly devote themselves to ‘helping’ the ‘informationally illiterate’ or ‘low information’ proles pick the ‘correct’ answer. Those who refuse will be chastised by police and judiciary. ‘The stakes are too high to shirk’, after all!
This is ironic considering that universities, particularly the Arts and Humanities, have spent the post-war era undermining the concept of objective reality – or ‘truth’ (the offending concept always safely isolated and highlighted as ‘problematic’, within the obligatory scare-quotes).
Your argument boils down to a version of the elitist argument: ‘ordinary people are really too ignorant to be allowed to fully participate in democracy, but in the meantime, bien-pensants, like ourselves, need control of the media to manufacture the society we want.’