In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President last year, it is clear that Western politics has experienced something of a paradigm shift. However, with the recent victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential elections, and that of Dutch Premier Mark Rutte in the Dutch general elections on 15 March 2017, it would appear that this shift toward populism has been checked, at least for now.
The margins of victory in both cases leave little room for complacency however. Marine Le Pen’s Front National party received 11 million votes, and both it and the Dutch Party for Freedom remain the second largest parties in France and the Netherlands respectively. Populist, isolationist, anti-immigrant policies are likely to remain part of the political landscape for some time, as is the spread of misinformation or ‘fake news’ that has greatly underpinned their rise.
With German elections due to take place on 24 September 2017, Angela Merkel’s government recently proposed a bill with the power to impose fines of up to €50 million on companies that fail to take steps to address the problem of fake news and hate comments on their platforms. In turn, the steady stream of politically motivated misinformation during the French Presidential elections led Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to slam the “tyranny of fake news”.
But how exactly is fake news to be understood and how much of a threat does it pose?
Impact of technological advancement
‘Fake news’ is a blunt term, encapsulating everything from the intentional dissemination of false information to mistakenly responding to it, and from the accidental dissemination of false information to satire. It also isn’t new. A 2005 Columbia Journalism Review article by Professor Robert Love, Before Jon Stewart, traces its historical origins back to the 8th century and beyond. Love shows how in the past, as now, fake news stemmed from a confluence of factors, including economic turmoil, political ideology and technological disruption, such as the telegraph. And also then, as now, the chief factor was technological change, and its chaotic effect on how information was transmitted and received.
A prescient example of fake news was the disastrous effect of Facebook’s decision in August 2016 to dismiss its entire team of content curators and replace it with an algorithm. Since Donald Trump’s electoral victory, and Hilary Clinton’s attribution of this, at least in part, to fake news disseminated across Facebook, the company has come under intense pressure to address the issue, and has begun to collaborate with a number of fact checking organisations to tag suspicious stories as ‘disputed’. It has also launched an educational tool that will appear at the top of news feeds to help users spot questionable content, and has invested in a new group called the News Integrity Initiative.
Google, in turn, has attempted to address the issue by launching a fact checking tool, which will help surface search results that have been checked by fact-checking organizations such as Politifact and Snopes. The company is also collaborating with the publishing industry as part of its Google Digital News Initiative. And both Facebook and Google are supporting independent fact checking organisations Full Fact and First Draft, in order to address the spread of any misinformation in advance of the UK general election next month.
Limited effect on trust but growing
The evidence gathered so far suggests that, certainly in relation to the US election, the impact of fake news has been small, but that it is increasing. There are worrying indications too of an indifference amongst some users as to whether the news they choose to consume is real or fake, and that the value placed on research methodologies and fact-checking processes is declining.
This threat is also set to grow as virtual reality begins to enter the mainstream news media and the internet becomes increasingly video-centric. Advances in video editing technology mean this shift also brings with it new opportunities for information manipulation, of the kind demonstrated by Stanford University last year, using what it called ‘real-time facial reenactment‘ technology. Fact checking processes in the digital age are already highly complex and time consuming, requiring detailed examination of network effects. Stopfake.org’s dissection of Russian propagandists’ manipulation of false claims of the rape of a Berlin schoolgirl by a migrant is a case in point.
The potential impact of this kind of disinformation campaign or ‘weaponisation’ of information should also be noted. In recent months, there has been an increased focus on the role which micro-targeting and psychogenic profiling could have played in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. In this context, both the office of the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission in the UK are currently conducting investigations into the possible illegal use of data. For now though, the evidence of the potential for such phenomena to affect political outcomes remains tenuous at best.
A cultural or technological phenomenon?
The potential magnitude of the fake news issue and its capacity to disrupt wider society is substantial. Dana Boyd, former Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, views the phenomenon primarily as a cultural problem that is “shaped by disconnects in values, relationships, and social fabric’. She contends that “our media, our tools, and our politics are being leveraged to help breed polarization by countless actors who can leverage these systems for personal, economic, and ideological gain.” In her view, fake news is symptomatic of a deeper societal malaise, which she terms “culture and information wars”, and which cannot be fixed by Facebook and Google alone.
An issue of trust
Ultimately, fake news and this cultural information war is the result of, in large part, a loss of trust. What public relations consultancy Edelman termed a “global implosion” of trust in its 2017 Trust Barometer. According to Edelman, this distrust is now spread across “public perceptions of government, business, media and the NGOs”, and is being driven by doubts over society’s collective ability to effectively manage challenges around “corruption, immigration, globalisation and the pace of innovation”.
In this context, fake news should serve as a warning to regulators everywhere because it is the nadir of the news industry’s two-decade long struggle to adapt to this increasingly rapid pace of change, from the internet to the rise of social networks to the smartphone, and the destruction of the business model that has accompanied it.
This is not to dispute the myriad benefits of such innovation, but as fake news demonstrates, it brings with it the potential for peril, as well as promise. As the pace of innovation accelerates, and what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues apace, so too will the risks proliferate. The unwitting response of Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, to fabricated reports of military threats made against his country by Israel, provides a stark example in this regard.
Machine learning processes in particular, which underpin the growing automation of wider society, are now threatening skillsets once thought secure, from the law to financial services. In some fields, such as ophthalmology, this has already yielded results. In other, such as recidivism assessments, it has not.
As policymakers consider how best to regulate these complex, emerging technologies, they may come to view the current chaos of news media as the canary in the digital coalmine.