Fake news: is it a threat to public participation?

Where satire attempts to undermine autocracy and prejudice; the worst of fake news feeds into prejudices and seeks to create community outrage, undermine public confidence in our political leaders, and steer public policy towards a particular ideology.*

Fake news articles spread across the internet like a bacterial infection. And like an infection they take hold and thrive in the darkest of places. One of the biggest publishers of fake news in the US bases his entire business model on the fact that fake news flourishes by feeding into preexisting conspiracy theories and prejudices.

While the deliberate distribution of misinformation about one’s political opponents is as old as time, the expression ‘fake news’ was made famous by Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential election. So quickly has it established itself in the political vernacular that Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary voted it 2016’s word of the year. President Trump used ‘fake news’ as a term to disparage most of the mainstream media, however a Stanford University study found that while fake news stories about the Presidential elections were shared close to 40 million times, the vast majority targeted his political opponents (although this is on the turn now that he has taken power).

Although there is some debate about the electoral impact of fake news as a campaign strategy, the study notes that when combined with the distributive power of social media, fake news is a potential game-changer in terms of the degree of political polarization. This has been demonstrated internationally.

Fake news: an international issue

The distribution of fake news to manipulate democratic outcomes and public policy is a growing concern globally. There are many clear examples from around the world of activist organisations, ideologically motivated media outlets, foreign governments and even small and micro business producing fake news. For example, so common is the misinformation about refugees seeking asylum in Germany, that Karolin Schwarz, an ethnologist of African studies has created HOAXmap to map defamatory hoaxes about refugees as they are perpetuated and then refuted in the media. In neighbouring France, the Mayor of Paris famously threatened to sue Fox News after the Charlie Hedbo attack over its’ faked reports about ‘no-go zones’ within the French capital supposedly run under Islamic Sharia law.

In other regions, Australian supporters of the anti-halal certification campaign have deliberately distributed fake news in an effort to influence the politicians to ban halal food production altogether. Equally, in Indonesia, the distribution by hard-line Islamic activists of fake anti-Christian news articles about Jakarta’s governor and his supporters is increasingly seen as contributing to the fermentation of community outrage and racist protests, and as a major threat to democratic processes. And, at the time of writing this article, the German government is investigating the recent proliferation of fake news articles; the concern being that the Kremlin may be trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming elections. There are similar concerns in France, with the leading Presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron, being targeted by Russian media and internet attacks. 

It’s clear that the fake news industry is sophisticated, widespread and very well established internationally. It is being used as a tool of individuals, activist groups, commercial organizations and governments to influence public perception and manipulate global events.  

Fake news: a local issue

Fake news has clearly taken hold as a campaign strategy at both an international and national level. The sheer scale of the machine behind the production and distribution of ‘dodgy’ content means that its main impact is likely to felt at the higher levels of government. But local issues are not immune. Fake news campaigning techniques can equally be applied at a local or state level, with significant local impact. In Nashville, fake news was blamed for causing confusion and outrage within the local parent community debating a potential increase in the number of local charter schools. On closer inspection, this is really local disinformation by a stakeholder, rather than fake news. But it has the same aggravating impact on a controversial local subject.

One Colorado State Representative was so convinced by a fake news story that claimed that people were using food stamps to buy marijuana (which is legal in Colorado) that she proposed legislation banning the practice. In Lafayette, LA, a candidate in the Congressional elections was accused of releasing derogatory fake news about his opponent on the letterhead of the local newspaper. Equally, one Louisiana school board was forced to publish a statement noting that it had no intention of arming its students after a fake news article circulated claiming that students at DeQuincy schools were given guns and told to take gun safety training.

It’s clear, then, that while fake news is at its most pervasive and dangerous at a national and international level, it’s lessons and techniques can be applied maliciously or mischievously at a more local scale. 

What is fake news?

‘Fake news’ generally refers to disinformation and hoaxes published on websites for political purposes. Satire and ‘spoof news’ stories can be difficult to distinguish from, and have in fact been confused with, fake news. But where satire seeks to ridicule and thereby undermine an accepted dogma or a political opponent’s argument by holding up a mirror to it, fake news sets out maliciously to undermine public confidence. Satire is a defender of democracy and antidote to autocracy. Fake news is the autocrat’s friend. 

The expression ‘fake news’ is also increasingly being used to encompass stories in the mainstream media that turn out to be based on inaccuracies or suffer from extreme ideological spin. And, of course, ‘fake news’ is deliberately misused by some politicians as a pejorative to impugn journalists and media organisations with whom they disagree. For example, Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro recently accused CNN of distributing fake news, when in fact, they appear to have been conducting excellent, if embarrassing, investigative journalism. Jonathan Albright, a media and communications professor at Elon University, North Carolina, studied the 2016 US Presidential election “micro-propaganda machine”. He notes that:  

There’s a vast network of dubious ‘news’ sites. Most are simple in design, and many appear to be made from the same web templates. These sites have created an ecosystem of real-time propaganda: they include viral hoax engines that can instantly shape public opinion through mass “reaction” to serious political topics and news events. This network is triggered on-demand to spread false, hyper-biased, and politically-loaded information.

The salient point about these “micro-propaganda machines” is that they aim to influence a network that can tailor people’s opinions, emotional reactions, and create viral sharing around what should be serious or contemplative issues. Put this beside a Pew Research Center survey which found that two out of three adults (64%) felt that “fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events” and we get to the crux of the matter. Fake news clearly has the very real potential to undermine the political process at a national scale – this is often its explicit objective. But it, or at least its methods, also have the potential to undermine state, regional and local policy discussions, and, therefore, to undermine the public participation.

fake news

Photo by 3dpete/Flickr/cc.

What motivates fake news?

While interference in the political process would seem to be the obvious motivation for creating fake news, it isn’t that simple. Some individuals and groups clearly create and distribute fake news in order to spread digital propaganda and influence political discourse and electoral outcomes. Others do it for purely financial reasons – fake news can generate a lot of web traffic and therefore a lot of digital advertising revenue. While still others do it out of mischief, or to undermine political or religious dogma, or simply for the challenge of seeing if their story can go viral.

The irony is that the impact of fake news created by mischief-makers and satirists has probably had completely the opposite impact than they were hoping for, or anticipated. The 24/7 news cycle and need for regular new content has overwhelmed fact-checking resources and editorial standards of news media organisations, to the extent that they are frequently picking up and massively amplifying fake news stories without an appreciation for their satirical basis.

Jestin Coler, a producer of fake news, noted that he established his business to infiltrate the echo chamber of the alt-right in the US by publishing fake news stories, seeing if they took hold in the mainstream, and then denouncing them publicly and loudly. He now runs a very profitable business based on traffic to his fake and satirical news sites. Coler’s theory is that fake news takes hold when it fits into existing right-wing conspiracies, and notes that he has tried producing fake ‘liberal’ news but they have never taken the bait. Others argue against this hypothesis, noting that fake news channeling the prejudices of ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ is on the rise particularly since Trump took office.

So fake news is not a left-right issue. It is a new, and insidious campaigning strategy that can be applied by anyone.

The fact that the financial gain and influence of national and even international politics seem to be such important motivating factors is good news for anyone dealing with more localised issues. However, as the fake news methods become better known and more widespread, there is every possibility that activists will apply them to local issues. The bad news is that things are only going to get worse, according to Coler. Fake articles are going to become increasingly nuanced and difficult to identify, fake news websites increasingly sophisticated and localized, and social distribution increasingly aggressive.

Fake news and public participation

Another Pew Research Center survey found that people who are the most civically engaged with their local communities – that is they vote, volunteer and connect – are also more likely to keep up with local news events than those who are disengaged. The logical corollary from this is that the people who we are most likely to be talking with during the public participation process are also the people who are most likely to have been exposed to, and perhaps influenced by, local news media.

We know from our own expansive experience working with hundreds of government clients on several thousand projects that younger people are generally less likely to get involved in a public participation process, and less likely to get involved in local policy conversations. However, they are also more vulnerable to being impacted by fake news because of their relatively high volume use of social networking sites to gather their news, and they are significantly more likely to be politically active on social networking sites that their older peers.

In contrast, older people are more likely to be civically engaged, more likely to participate in a public engagement process, and less likely to get their news via social media channels. The risk of this population cohort being contaminated by fake news prior to a public engagement process is, therefore, probably fairly small.

Unless, that is, the fake news that has been circulating online breaks free of the internet and makes it into the local newspaper, onto the local radio, or (less commonly) onto the local television station. These are the still the predominant news channels for older people. If fake news escapes the confines of the web, there is a genuine threat that it could disrupt the ability of government organizations to make sound and rational decisions. It also has the potential to divide the community and create fear and suspicion undermining community resilience.  

Responding to fake news

Fact-checking sites, like FactCheck.org and Politifact, have arisen in response to the proliferation of fake news. Various websites, such as The Daily Dot and Fake News Watch have also started to publish lists of known fake news websites, and a number of University libraries have also begun publishing resources to help students identify fake news stories. And the major social media sites have also announced plans to combat the distribution of fake news.

These are all good strategies, but, if fake news is a bacterial infection, then these are narrow spectrum antibiotics, whereas we really need to identify broad spectrum solutions. Each strategy combats the threat of fake news one story at a time, one website at a time. A broad spectrum solution would address fake news at its roots by ensuring the growing environment and the organism are as healthy as possible, and thus immune to infection. Government organisations can take this lead in this regard by proactively and positively engaging with the citizenry. The City of Longmont in Colorado addressed this challenge through its library services, by offering a community lecture on how to spot fake news. That the lecture was sold out is an illustration that the community needs and wants help with this issue.

Another way to address the threat of fake news is to step up direct engagement between government and citizens. Direct engagement enables a government organization to address citizen questions and comments directly and hopefully to deal with any rumours and fake news that might be circulating head on before it does damage. The City of Oshawa, Ontario CA gathered and responded to dozens of questions posted online by its citizens about the budgeting process. Australia Post has addressed more than 1000 questions about the future of Australia’s postal services. Mandurah, a small council on Australia’s west coast, dealt with more than 100 community generated questions about the plans for an historic local bridge. Auckland, New Zealand answered its community’s questions about the renewal of its transport infrastructure.

All of these projects contain the sort of issues where rumors can quickly gain currency and locally targeted fake news can be used to drive political and policy decision-making.  Answering people’s questions in a public and transparent way not only promulgates reliable information, it also ensures that the community does not have to go to social media for their answers. Fake news need not derail your project; transparency, openness and proactiveness will always trump it.

*This post was inspired by an earlier article authored by Bang the Table CEO, Matt Crozier, that appeared on the ELGL blog: Fake News, Rumour, and Innuendo

Header photo: Cody Williams/Flickr/cc

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