A World Of Fake News? The Fourth Estate In The Era of Social Media

During both the campaign and aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election the idea of “fake news” received significant coverage.  Repeated constantly by then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, “fake news” has since become a source of debate in American society. While  President Trump has weaponised this concept to rail against the mainstream American media and label criticisms of him as “fake news,” liberal media outlets have in turn blamed “fake news” for Trump’s electoral victory.

Sadly, this problem is similarly prominent outside of the United States as it has manifested in numerous countries across the world.  In both democracies and autocratic regimes, the concept of “fake news” has polarised societies and unsettled the distinction between fact and fiction.  During the Brexit campaign of 2016, each side made a variety of factually disputable claims.  One particularly contentious assertion held that leaving the European Union would allow for £350 million to be spent each week on the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).  Another dubious claim stated that Turkey would soon join the European Union, opening up migration from another populous member state.  Meanwhile, the French and German elections of 2017 were preoccupied with anxiety about alternative news, cyber threats (particularly from Russia), and other attempts to fuel social divisions and misinform voters.  In India, the WhatsApp messaging service application has been used to spread rumours of child abduction, resulting in the lynching of suspected child abductors.  In Myanmar, “fake news” has helped fuel the rise in violence against the Rohingya.

In response to the spread of “fake news,” both governments and social media platforms have carried out various initiatives to combat what they view as a profound threat to democratic society.  The U.K.’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has carried out an inquiry into “fake news” and has embarked on an investigation into the activities of Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct British political consulting firm that worked on President Trump’s election campaign and the Leave Campaign for Brexit.  Meanwhile, social media and tech giants, such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook have worked on removing news articles, closing down accounts, and encouraging fact-checking posts.

However, despite the efforts of both governments and social media and tech companies, combating “fake news” remains an elusive goal.  As public trends in news consumption shows an irreversible shift from print media to television and digital content, traditional news outlets have lost out to new platforms.  According to a Pew Research Center survey taken in 2017, 43 percent of Americans frequently get their news online, only seven percentage points lower than the 50 percent who often get their news on television.  Significantly, that survey showed that the gap is actually narrowing between television and online news consumption, from a 19-point difference in 2016 to the 7-point gap of 2017.  Further, the survey results indicated that two-thirds of American adults use social media to get the news.  In the United Kingdom, another survey carried out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford indicated that online news had overtaken television as the preferred medium of receiving news.  Across the world, people (especially younger people) are increasingly relying on social media to remain informed.

This trend is likely to continue largely unabated, making regulation very difficult.  This is because “alternative news media” and other new sources of information have proliferated to such an extent that trying to filter through all—or even most— of them is a herculean task.  In democratic states, this problem is even more pronounced.  Managing the balance of maintaining an open, democratic system and verifying and addressing “fake news” is the mounting challenge.

Two factors have largely contributed to the rise of “fake news” and its persistence as a major social issue; increasing political polarisation and the autonomy that social media users have in choosing their media sources.  Political polarisation has not been a recent development, but in recent years social cleavages have deepened to such a point that societies are divided along identarian lines.  Identity politics on both the extreme-left and extreme-right has been a particular source of tension in both democracies and authoritarian states as politicians have appealed to particular identity-groups in order to shape a society’s political discourse.  This has sometimes led to violence, entrenching divisions and further weakening social cohesion.  In a self-perpetuating cycle, the polarised state of politics that has emerged has spilled over into the domain of social media.  With the freedom to choose what news organisations, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Instagram accounts to follow, social media users often choose sources which conform to their own particular viewpoints and political values.  This inevitably has the effect of narrowing their political perspective and reduces their openness to other ideas.

To address “fake news” and its effect on social cohesion, political discourse, and, of course on news media, there must be a reinvigoration of traditional news platforms and greater effort to help the public achieve political literacy.

This means that traditional news platforms must work to maintain high standards of truthfulness, neutrality, and clarity in their reporting.  With this in mind, a major concern is the public’s trust of news media.  According to Edelman’s “Trust Barometer 2018,” globally, “66 percent of people believe that media organisations are overly concerned with attracting big audiences rather than reporting.”  There is also a consistent belief among many consumers of news that media organisations are characterised by political biases, and thus distort, exaggerate, or misinform their audiences.  A survey taken in 2017 by the Reuters Institute found that 33 percent of respondents believed that they could not rely on the news to be true.  Further, only 24 percent said that social media did a good job separating fact from fiction.  Opinions regarding traditional news outlets were not much better, with 40 percent saying that they did a good job in separating fact from fiction.  It is evident then that both social media platforms and main-stream journalists need to work on regaining the trust of the public and ensure that they are not generating misleading content.

While the onus of responsibility largely lies on news platforms, it is of vital importance that the public itself act as the enforcer of the standards mentioned above.  As the consumers of news, it is imperative that the public remains as well-informed as possible and keeps news organisations accountable.  For democracies, it should be considered a vital civic duty.  Just as citizens are called to keep their representatives and political leaders accountable, they should do the same for the Fourth Estate.

Though these might be high expectations for news platforms—who are independent actors—and the public—who might feel powerless to effect change—empowering both will strengthen democratic societies and hopefully mitigate the effects of political polarisation.