Fake News: Social Media's impact on Democracy

December 5, 2019

As Goebbels stated: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.’ 

 

Fake News in the modern day can be seen as an extension of the ‘big lie’ from the Nazi’s propaganda techniques from World War Two. And although fake news pollutes our media outlets, who is responsible for finding the truth? According to research by Eurobarmeter, the European public put the responsibility on journalists (45%), governments (39%), press and TV management (36%), citizens (32%) and only social platforms (26%). 

 

This is surprising, with links between the infamous Cambridge Analytica and the Brexit campaign, the US and the role of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer exposed in February 2017. It was uncovered how Cambridge Analytica had exploited Facebook data harvested from millions of people to profile and target them with political messages and misinformation, without their knowledge or consent. It immediately had a consequential impact in that it triggered three investigations: one by the Electoral Commission and two by the Information Commissioner’s Office, into spending and what had been done with data. This then became part of an even bigger inquiry, into the use of data in politics - the biggest and maybe the most important data investigation in the world. 

 

Whist the government has pressured Facebook, Google and other tech companies to rid their services of misinformation, the majority of those polled said that journalists have the biggest responsibility to reduce made-up stories. Another 12% said that fell to government, and only 9% said tech companies had the duty. 20% said the public had the greatest responsibility to reduce fake news. 

 

More recently Conservative Campaign Headquarters had the idea to rebrand its Twitter account as FactcheckUK. Tweets sent from the account throughout the debate denounced most of Corbyn’s policies and praised Johnson’s. Twitter users and political opposition members reacted in fury and bewilderment. Some saw it as a deliberate attempt to conceive and mislead the general public, Labour MP David Lammy saying it showed the party’s ‘disdain for the truth’. Confusion seemed exactly what the Conservatives were hoping to achieve as they not only changed the name of the account but also both header and profile images. The CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) Chief Executive, Nick Poole, accused the Conservative leadership of failing to ‘act with honesty and probity and in a manner which upholds the reputation and values of the Conservative Party’ and this was likely to ‘diminish public trust’. Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, claimed that not even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, who have both been accusing of undermining democracy in their own nations, would go as far as the Conservatives did.

 

A key part of the fake news problem lies with the people who consume it. The public, in general, does not have time to fact check everything they read or have the effort to do so, and just consume information given to them. An MIT study on Twitter found that disinformation reached more people and spread six times faster than factual stories. Furthermore, it was seen as more interesting than real news, and 1 in 4 retweeted even if they were aware it was fake. In America, roughly half of Republicans and Democrats alike said they have unknowingly shared fake news, and about 1 in 10 said they have shared stories they already knew were untrue. Similar results were found in a study by Loughborough University who found nearly half of social media users who share articles have passed on fake news. This is particularly a problem during elections when undecided voters seek more information and struggle to distinguish fact from fiction. Furthermore, misinformation was cited more often as a major problem than sexism, racism, illegal immigration or terrorism in both Britain and America alike.

 

According to John Locke, citizens in a liberal society have a duty to do their best to hold beliefs that are true or very likely to be true. As responsible believers, we always have the duty to check our sources and to trust experts that can be considered as such due to their reputation and the competencies that they have acquired. This may become very difficult in the time of social networks where there is such a multiplicity of sources that it becomes difficult to distinguish between more authoritative and less authoritative ones. With this said, through social networks, people are not only consumers of news but play an active role in their diffusion of information. In the past, citizens may have been victims of government propaganda and indoctrination. At present, through social networks, citizens can offer themselves as sources of information both trustworthy and untrustworthy. 

 

Unsplash//Markus Spiske

 

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