Fake news: no easy fix
All around the Internet, articles about how to tackle fake news pop up, often with education as their number one priority and solution, along with some form of technical solution like an intervention in algorithms to forcefully diversify what users see and puncturing the filter bubbles. Unfortunately, education and technical solutions are only part of the answer, and by no means the larger part.
As many have underlined, fake news is not a new phenomenon. It took many shapes and forms throughout history. During the Roman Empire, spreading fake information has been used for political aims (winning an election); in Ancient Greece, public opinion was often swayed by dishonest people, their lies and deceit cemented the terms still in use today of “demagogue” and “sophist”.
The printing press brought the phenomenon to a whole new level with pamphlets/leaflets and gave birth to mass government propaganda, still very much in operation today, only in subtler ways. Instead of blatant and explicit propaganda depicting the enemy as “inherently evil” as one could read during World War I pamphlets about the Germans or the French, the mass media can put extra emphasis on a story, give more air time to “independent experts” with a clearly biased point of view, or use info-tainment tactics to manipulate people’s opinions which achieves the same or even better results that “in your face” obvious propaganda. (See the media “drum of war” prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003) Note that, ironically, the reason given by the US government for invading Iraq turned out to be a big lie.
The points raised above already expose a part of the problem: the mainstream/mass media and even governments, although they cannot be compared to the level of “fakeness” of outlets like Breitbart, are clearly biased, have promoted propaganda in the past, and occasionally, a “fake news” story as well, which puts them in a difficult position to criticize “fake news”.
Many articles have also already explored the links between “fake news”, the declining quality of mainstream media and their business model/private ownership. The business model relying on audience provides a strong incentive for choosing sensationalist stories or putting a sensationalist spin on stories, or even resorting to click-baiting, at the expense of quality journalism. Private ownership only accentuates emphasis on revenue and profits (to satisfy the shareholders), and carries risks of censorship (when some stories may go against the interest of the private owner). For instance, in France, some media outlets owned by Telecom giants clearly forbid any type of investigative stories about Telecoms.
So in addressing the “fake news” phenomenon we have so far: a focus on education (which includes fact-checking), some technical fixes like breaking filter bubbles by diversifying what users see, rekindling the trust in mainstream media (which requires a deep reform since many are clearly biased and subject to either government propaganda or private censorship) and addressing the over-reliance of journalism on business models which promotes quantity/popularity over quality.
What is amiss? A broader consideration of the general context in which “fake news” flourishes. The Internet is not that young and viral stories have been a thing for over a decade already. Internet Memes for instance have existed for nearly as long as the Internet (see the “dancing baby” video or the “Star Wars Kid”) Advertisers harnessed the power of virality much sooner than “fake news” in social media (see the Coca Cola bottle naming campaign). So why didn’t “fake news” appear as an issue sooner when Facebook started to reach scale in 2010 or so?
The answer, in my mind, is that the general context and environment are directly responsible for the emergence of certain ideas and behaviours. Marx’s writings about Communism are directly linked to the exploitation and suffering of workers in his days. Hitler’s Nazism was born from the ashes of Germany’s crushing defeat, humiliation and economic and social hardships post World War I. And the “propaganda” that was born from these ideologies took root again depending on the context.
Marx thought that Communism would start in Germany or England, two of the most industrialized countries at the time, where the “proletariat” (poor factory workers) represented a large portion of the population. Yet the revolution took place in Russia, a country that was still in the Middle Ages in terms of technological/economic development and a large majority of people being peasants (working in agriculture). Why? Because governments in many Western European countries made concessions to workers to improve their social and working conditions, thereby weakening the willingness of workers to revolt.
Nazism, on the other hand, found fertile ground in Germany post-World War I, a lesson the United States and their allies learned well after World War II, working to help Germany recover instead of humiliating it by exploiting part of its natural resources (like the French did after World War I in the Ruhr) or crushing it with huge financial war compensations that were impossible to repay.
The Political Scientist Hannah Arendt studied pre-World War II Germany and the start and spread of Nazi propaganda. In those days, there were already fact-checkers, which pointed out that Jews could in no way be held responsible for the defeat of Germany in World War I. But it didn’t matter. It is not that the fact-checkers did a poor job, but rather that the context, at that time, made Nazi ideology and its propaganda appealing to many Germans. That is not to say that poverty and humiliation are enough to transform an entire population into inhumane executioners, but once a critical mass is reached, if there is no strong opposition, then the phenomenon identified in the Milgram experiments can set in: by following orders coming from an authority which is perceived as legitimate, even an ordinary person can be brought to carry out terrible actions.
How is this related to “fake news”?
Simply speaking, we spend too little time wondering why so many people fall prey to “fake news” and why the phenomenon of “fake news” peaks at certain key moments throughout history. Instead of focusing on the symptom, we should be treating the root cause. So what has happened in the last few decades that could justify the gradual and intensified emergence of fake news?
To find out, I will first list some of the most important reasons for the onset of revolutions as identified by the Ancient Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, from his seminal work “Politics”.
In the general causes, we find, unsurprisingly, poverty or rather, the growing inequalities between a very few rich individuals at the top and a mass of poor people at the bottom. But it is not just about poverty, it is also about feelings of exclusion and humiliation. So very often, those who rebel seek to regain some property but also, to regain a sense of honor and self-worth. Also part of the general causes, Aristotle found that “[a] revolutionary climate would be soon created, especially when the state officials become haughty, arrogant and drunk with power, or pay no attention to the genuine problems of the people.” 1
Aristotle found these factors to be at the root cause of revolutions, but I believe they are also at the root cause of “fake news”, almost as a symptomatic forewarning.
More and more countries around the world are experiencing the factors identified by Aristotle bringing about revolutions. It is no mystery that inequalities between the rich and the poor have been growing, exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. But that is not all. Many people also experience a feeling of exclusion and humiliation. People that formerly had a certain social status, had self-worth, as qualified workers in the American automotive sector for instance now unemployed due to delocalizations, are now in a state of humiliation. The mass media even sometimes exacerbating this sentiment: as we have seen in the Trump election or the Brexit, mass media continuously expressed contempt or arrogance when talking about the “uneducated, dumb electors", falling prey to populist speeches from people like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. This has been recognized by many mainstream media after the damage had been done.
If we examine fake news closely, we find recurring themes which simply put, blame the misery of fake news readers on some external factors like immigration, liberal elites, Jews, Muslims, terrorism etc, and suggesting an “easy fix” for these: kick out the immigrants, kick out the “establishment”,…
So what is the take-away? If we want to durably fight fake news and incidentally, prevent revolutions, we need to create an environment in which fake news becomes less believable or where its messages are less appealing. And that, again, brings us to Aristotles’ suggestions, which, among other things, recommended to foster the development of a middle class and make sure the extremes (the very poor and the very rich) remain a negligible minority, in other words, to fight inequality and social exclusion, giving back to people a sense of dignity and self-worth, electing politicians who show respect for their citizens and show the sense of responsibility associated with their position.
You will probably object that this is easier said then done, but unfortunately, in today’s world with today’s technology, if we do not fight fake news via it’s root cause, fake news is here to stay. (See the growing blockchain-based decentralized web-hosting solutions). Remember that fake news is only the visible part of much bigger problems.