Almost exactly two years ago I was having coffee in Soho with a friend who happens to be a news presenter for a global media outlet (have not asked permission to mention names here…). We pondered among other things the emergence of what seemed to be a sudden epidemic of false, misleading or otherwise uncorroborated information, widely spread around the world as “fact” on social media platforms and sometimes even reported as such by established titles and journalists.
We were discussing fake news, of course. Strange that it didn’t really didn’t even have a name then. A quick Google search now shows around 691,000,000 references, and an entire taxonomy has arisen around it, a complex ecosystem of memes, bots, trolls, conspirators and conspiracy theorists, all dedicated to muddying the communal well – some for a laugh, some to be difficult, and some for more sinister purposes.
Or maybe the fake news system had always been there, waiting to be discovered and labelled. In any case, it’s hard to argue that an environment featuring global connectivity, political uncertainty and more than a few bad actors has enabled fake news to a pose a threat unimaginable just a few years ago.
There were, we thought back in Soho, three general kinds of fake news: complete fiction dressed up to sound real; actual news distorted or misrepresented to paint favourable or disparaging pictures; and real news rejected as “fake” by those who simply don’t like it.
All three are dangerous for democracy and commerce, but there seemed to be a single shield that could be used to fend each of them off: improving media literacy. If people could be taught to check sources, understand attribution, question hyperbole and exercise a little common sense, we thought, the graver risks of fake news could be mitigated, and we brainstormed a few projects – books, podcasts or a documentary.
None of our ideas got off the ground, but fortunately many others picked up the gauntlet and now dozens if not hundreds of initiatives are underway to educate consumers, shut down dubious sources and try to hold platforms accountable.
I truly hope they work. But I am beginning to think that fake news exploits the dark side of a more fundamental human trait: the desire to believe in a larger “truth.” On a personal level, we are all willing to overlook contradicting facts and accept falsehoods that back up the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and relationships with others.
This self-hypnosis goes well beyond politics; we cherry-pick evidence to substantiate the way we see ourselves and our beliefs, and ignore the rest, a tendency known as confirmation bias.
Fake news takes this much further, and wider. Confirmation bias at scale, across a large group of like-minded believers, is readily weaponised by those in power willing to manipulate opinion with fiction, misrepresented facts and reject of the truth. A fascinating paper by Ezra Zuckerman Sivan and others at MIT shows that when offered a “greater good” or common cause, people will not only accept obvious lies from a leader they believe will deliver that shared, larger goal, they will be complicit in spreading them. Eventually, the “truth” becomes immaterial.
This was dangerous enough in the 1930s, when mass audiences were harder to find and connect. Radio broadcasts, massive rallies and news images had their limitations, but were horrifically potent means of spreading lies in pursuit of causes that were neither great nor true, but widely pursued. Today’s manipulators have no such limitations, and it’s not impossible to see fake news becoming a tool to do far worse things than interfere with an election or referendum.
Improving media literacy, certifying the reliability of information, scrutinising sources – all of this can’t hurt blunt the impact of fake news but there’s a far larger task at hand.