Nobody likes fake news, whether produced for profit or for political purposes, and irrespective of how it has been disseminated.
It clearly exists, whether propaganda or churned out by the now infamous Macedonian teenagers.
But how much of an issue is fake news, narrowly understood as news that is factually wrong and/or fictitious while masquerading as news and is knowingly produced as such?
The first rule of writing about fake news is to admit that we do not really know what is going on: how much is there, produced by whom, who uses it, why, and how much does it influence them?
That said, here is an optimistic take on the fake news discussion–based on three points.
- Are there in fact likely to be significant effects of being exposed to fake news? Before jumping to the conclusion that people are in fact influenced by fake news, consider the following possible objections. First, most people are exposed to many different messages, pieces of information, and news stories every day, and research suggests that the effect of any one of these messages (like a fake news story) is likely to be very limited and short-lived, unless exposure is consistent, sustained, and very one-sided. Second, when people navigate news online, they rely in part on what their own browsing behaviour and various algorithmic filters lead them to, but also on source affiliation and social endorsements for cues on what to believe. Third, when they do in fact engage with news (some of which may be fake), they may do so in a whole lot of ways and for a whole lot of reasons that are more ritual and do not involve them actually believing that the information contained is necessarily true—think of this by analogy as being amused by a tabloid or gossip site, sharing something on Twitter or commenting on Facebook without actually having read it, etc.
- Everybody seems to think other people are fooled by fake news, few seem to think that they themselves have been fooled. The discussion around fake news seems to reflect at least in part what media researchers call “third-person effect”, the fact that people generally see media and communication “as having a greater effect on others than on himself or herself”. Often, these “others” happen to people who are (a) poor and have low levels of education and (b) with whom those worried about the effect disagree politically, adding a bit of classism and partisan polarization to the discussion. (BuzzFeed and Ipsos did one of the most interesting and important empirical studies of fake news in the US back in December, and found that 33% of survey respondents—a clear minority—recalled seeing fake news headlines during the election (57% recalled real news headlines). Of those who did recall fake news headlines, a majority (especially amongst Republicans and Trump supporters), rated those headlines as “very accurate” or “somewhat accurate”—though keep in mind as is clear from the topline data, in most cases, most respondents answered “somewhat accurate”).
- Of course, fake news is likely to be important for some. Selective exposure to partisan fake news (we tend to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing views while avoiding information that contradicts it) and motivated reasoning (we tend to process information so that it fits with our existing beliefs) means that for a minority of very highly partisan people, fake news probably shore up and even further polarize their political views. But here fake news is arguably (unless empirical work can find that there is a lot of it and people pay a lot of attention to it) a small part of a larger story of partisan polarization in some countries (including notably the US) and of a media industry that has moved from providing mostly middle-of-the-road, he-said/she-said news committed to some version of attempted objectivity to a situation where more and more media are clearly partisan or perhaps deliberately and for largely commercial reasons peddle moral outrage. Fake news may intensify this development, but if so clearly builds on a much broader and long-standing development.
There are no doubt a group of people who are fooled by fake news and who in fact are influenced by it.
And it seems clear that fake news is not only cheaper to produce (and monetize) today, but also easier to disseminate online than ever before.
But until someone provide evidence to the contrary, I suspect most people are exposed to relatively little fake news (and a lot of other stuff) and are not very much influenced by it.
Point one and two above, building on decades of empirical media research, suggest that, until there is evidence to the contrary, we should expect only a minority of people to be both (a) exposed to fake news, (b) fooled by it, and (c) in fact influenced by it. Point three of course suggests that there is another minority who may rely in part on fake news as they maintain partisan identities, but, as said, this is arguably a broader point about political (partisan polarization) and media (move from mass to niche, including partisan niche).
None of this means that we should not take fake news seriously or that there aren’t reasons to be concerned when people produce fake news, either for profit or for political purposes. Nor does it mean that we should not be concerned about the question of whether technology platforms including Google and Facebook enable the production and dissemination of fake news (though they also enable a whole lot more, and any call for change, intervention, and/or regulation needs to keep this in mind, and to think about whether the cure is sometimes worse than the disease).
But what this optimistic take on fake news does mean is that we should not let the passionate and heated (and sometimes largely evidence-free and polemical) discussion distract us from a set of arguably more fundamental challenges concerning news and the role of news in contemporary politics and public life.
- Do non-fake news in fact serve society well in terms of how they have dealt with issues including Brexit and Donald Trump? The loud discussion around fake news risks obscuring a critical discussion of (real) news and how well different (real) news organizations handle their public role. Some news organizations did a valiant and principled job. Others did not. Research on rumours both offline and online suggest people turn to “improvised news” (often inaccurate, sometimes outright falsehood) especially in times of crisis when conventional news may be scarce or do not answer the questions people have.
- Why is it that so many people (in the US almost 40%) do not trust (real) news and in some cases don’t accept that (real) news is much different from fake news, or much more trustworthy than fake news? As a media researcher and as someone who personally believes in the public value of much of journalism, warts and all, I am concerned that the focus on one easy target of moral approbation—fake news—distracts from the fact that many people think of much of news, sometimes justifiably so, as less than trustworthy, and often out of touch with their problems, values, and concerns.
- Are the political outcomes of political processes like the UK referendum on the European Union and the US Presidential Election perhaps first and foremost political in nature? Blaming Macedonian teenagers making things up for a living, Russian propaganda, and the opaque algorithms of powerful and profitable technology companies for an election result draws attention away from whether in fact these outcomes were primarily driven by more fundamental political, social, and economic processes (and that these in turn vary by country).
An optimistic take on fake news may thus (perhaps pessimistically) suggest that the most important questions we face around media and democracy today concern real news, and how real news—often on an eroding resource base—can cover highly partisan politics, reach more people, and connect societies that in some cases seem more and more polarized in terms of both social values and relative affluence.
(Many thanks to David Levy and Richard Fletcher for comments on this piece. I wrote this in part because Gina Neff effecitvely told me to.)