The War on Fake News Fatally Misunderstands Fake News

(Originally written September 3rd, 2017)

Fake news is a serious problem, although not for the reasons many people seem to believe. It’s a serious problem, not just because the false beliefs it encourages can have grave consequences, but because it’s the misidentification of an even more serious problem. While the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter are now rushing to address it on exclusively technical and epistemological levels, as if it were simply the result of a vacuum of reliable information, it is in fact the symptom of deeply entrenched social, economic and political issues. These issues are age-old – social deprivation, inequality, poverty, deindustrialisation, political disaffection – and together they create the conditions necessary for fake news to take root and thrive, since they create people with an anti-establishment antipathy so deep-seated they’re willing to rally around almost any assertion levelled against this establishment, even patently false ones.

It’s because fake news stems fundamentally from underlying social and political rifts that recent initiatives to tackle it won’t be anywhere near as effectual as hoped. For example, Full Fact – the London-based fact-checking charity – has recently announced that, from October, it will be rolling out an automated fact-checking programme for journalists. Backed by $500,000 of funding coming partly from investor George Soros and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, it will scan (subtitled) verbal and written statements and compare them against a database of approved info compiled by such agencies as Full Fact, and later by such official bodies as the Office for National Statistics. Like Facebook’s experiments with flagging potentially false news articles or suggesting more evidenced related articles, it may very well prove an efficient way of highlighting a claim as dubious. Nonetheless, it won’t substantially erode fake news as a problem, since it does absolutely nothing to address the social, economic and political impetus to latch onto fake news in the first place.

The biggest mistake made by such systems as Full Fact’s, or by Google’s Fact Check  initiative, is that they assume any given piece of fake news gains traction mostly because people are unable to access the credible and corroborated info that would debunk it. This is false, since one of the perverse ironies of fake news as a phenomenon is that it has emerged at a time when the public’s access to professionally vetted information has never been greater. Forgetting the increasing number of Full Fact-esque tools and open-access peer-reviewed journals for a moment, this is particularly evident in the increasing digital consumption of the UK’s most prominent ‘newsbrands,’ with the National Readership Survey finding, for example, that monthly Guardian and Daily Telegraph circulation increased by 160% and 165.9% respectively in the year to March alone.

Given that people don’t have to search far and wide if they want quality-controlled info, it’s therefore necessary to look to other trends and circumstances for fake news’ explanation. And once again, no one actually has to search very far, since these are much the same trends and circumstances that won Donald Trump the 2016 presidential election, and that saw the UK vote to leave the EU. Namely, they’re trends relating mostly to deprivation, marginalisation, inequality and disaffection, manifested most notably in how working class voters from the Rust Belt were instrumental in bringing Trump to power, just as how a greater proportion of uneducated, poorer voters were instrumental in achieving Brexit. Yet the point here doesn’t reside simply with relative poverty or disenfranchisement in themselves, but rather with how such poverty and disenfranchisement resulted in millions of people becoming disaffected with the groups they perceived as being their enemy: political elites and the establishment, of which the mainstream media is one of the most prominent figureheads.

That the ‘MSM’ are so heavily associated with the powerful and the influential is evident in levels of public trust, which have decreased for the media in recent years just as they have for politicians. For example, in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, it was found that faith in the media had fallen to “an all-time low in 17 countries,” standing at 43% globally, 47% in the US and 32% in the UK. By comparison, these respective percentages stood at 57%, 51% and 47% in 2014, and while these are hardly awe-inspiring figures by themselves, they underline the sharp decline in trust that’s hit the media in recent years.

Not only that, but seeing as how there hasn’t really been any particularly high profile media scandal in the three years between 2014 and 2017 (the last being the 2011 News of the World hacking affair), they also underline how this precipitous decline has come largely from working-class people feeling increasingly neglected by the MSM, just as they’ve felt increasingly neglected by the political establishment. And since they’ve been ignored for so long, they’ve grown antagonistic towards the media and the classes they believe the media represent. They’ve become so antagonistic, in fact, that many are unwilling to side with many of the claims and reports the media produce, even demonstrably true claims and arguments.

In other words, significant subsections of the UK, US and other populations have come to regard facts as suspect, or as Michael Gove infamously put it, “they’ve had enough of experts.” This is mostly because they perceive said facts and experts as weapons used against them, weapons that appear to result in their neglect, disadvantage and hardship. Hence the emergence of fake news, which satisfies less the need to deceive people, and more the (sometimes unconscious) need to express antagonism towards ‘the system’. Added to this, it also expresses the need to relate with and connect to others who share a similar antagonism, which explains why fake news is all-but inextricable from social media (contrary to those who think social media simply enables liars to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge). It serves as means of identifying like-minded people, and of solidifying groups on the basis of mutual interests and sentiments.

To quote what Lynn Vavreck – a UCLA political science professor and New York Times columnist – said of Donald Trump’s asinine (and to some degree ‘fake’) election slogans, they “were a form of group politics or identity politics.” So too is fake news a form of group politics, and it’s precisely for this reason that the purely technical and epistemological approaches of Full Fact, Google and Facebook won’t do that much to stamp it out. This is what those struggling quixotically against fake news miss: that no level of verification or confirmation will make certain readers accept facts that are strongly associated with the interests of those groups and institutions viewed as their ‘enemy‘. As such, for as long as such issues as declining living standards, wealth inequality, income inequality, weak wage growth, and marginalisation remain serious and largely unaddressed, many of the people affected by them will continue to create ‘alternative facts’ as a way of rallying themselves in opposition to their perceived oppressors, even when they may be aware said facts are false.

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