What the politicization of fake news means for the common person
Fake news is seemingly everywhere. It has been for a long time, but nobody cared about half-truths and little white lies or celebrity gossip until they threatened the establishment. Perhaps it marks a cultural shift where people are beginning to recognize falsehoods for themselves, in which case society is already on a better path. But the more likely scenario is that fake news, and the hysteria that surrounds it, is a threat to liberal democracy.
A deeply worrying trend with fake news is the state’s desire to monitor and control the flow of false information in an effort to eradicate it. Most recently, Italian Antitrust Chief, Giovanni Pitruzella said that independent bodies must be set up to remove fake news from circulation and impose fines on anyone who is caught distributing it. Essentially, social media organizations that distribute the information can’t be trusted to curtail fake news, so the state must take charge. This comes after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on constitutional reform in December, and stepped down from his post.
“If there was a lie told to win an election it could be verified and stopped, but some of these lies today can go viral, that’s the unique phenomenon.”
“A core tenant of liberal democracy is that we can deal with facts, so the fundamental danger of fake news is that it undermines the principles of a liberal and pluralist democracy,” said Conrad King, an instructor of political science at Capilano University. King believes that the state’s desire to take control of the media is an unsettling but necessary measure that must be taken to prevent the circulation of false news. However, if politicians are going to become involved in scrutinizing the media, their role must be a marginal one, and those involved in deciding what to censor must be non-partisan. If an elected official such as Barack Obama were to be the deciding factor in what is deemed false and what is deemed truth, all opposition to the party’s platform would be censored. “[Whereas] the antitrust chief, if he’s doing his job, which is institutionally non-partisan, shouldn’t care whether Renzi’s in power, he should be caring about the tenants of democracy,” said King.
Throughout the 2016 election campaign, opposition to the Obama Administration was slandered, and as a result there has never been greater furor or hatred for an incoming president. King also pointed out that we’ve already seen the dangers of an elected official such as Trump deciding what’s fake and what’s not when he pointed fingers at CNN on Jan. 11 – the media is silenced by the regime.
“Truth in journalism is a fundamental estate that upholds our liberal democracy, so in a way it’s absolutely necessary,” said King.
“Fake news shakes the core ethics journalism was built on. However, that is just one part of the problem,” added freelance reporter Leah Scheitel. “The other part is the insatiable appetite for fake news. If people didn’t read it, it wouldn’t be as dangerous as it currently is.”
If fake news is defined as the intentional spread of misinformation to influence public opinion, we see it every day already in advertising. People are also inherently attracted to gossip, which is how tabloids make their money reporting misinformation.
“If there was a lie told to win an election it could be verified and stopped, but some of these lies today can go viral, that’s the unique phenomenon,” said King. The click-based model used to produce media revenue online uses algorithms, which means that content a reader is more likely to click on will be prioritized in their newsfeed. If a person has clicked on a fake news website before, the algorithm will register that website and expose it to the reader again, knowing that they are likely to click on it. “I doubt that we would have ever imagined this would be an issue before the advent and dependence on technology and instant news,” said Scheitel. The espousing of fake news was a minor concern in the 1990s when the Internet was thought to be enlightening, but with time it has proven to be a platform for false information to spread uncontrolled.
The distributors of news are hitting walls throughout Europe as well. Facebook came under fire in November for running up against Germany’s hate speech laws, which would require the social media platform to remove any and all content deemed hate speech by the state within 24 hours of it being brought to attention, but the platform has struggled to remove just 46 per cent of flagged content. Freedom of speech is already censored in limited ways, ways that are deemed acceptable by most. For example, perjury, lying under oath in a court of law, hate speech and slander are forms of speech that have severe consequences associated with them. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of such speech, but people should be able to experience those consequences firsthand when it doesn’t pose a threat to democracy.
What politicians can do is call out misinformation where they see it. “Most famously, a couple of months ago Barack Obama was in Germany alongside Angela Merkel and he made quite a point that fake news goes to the heart of liberal democracies,” said King. “Him calling out fake news is different than actually creating policy around it.” In such a scenario, propaganda would run rampant. Already we are exposed to the state’s ideology, and disagreeing with the conventionally held perspective results in being labelled.
King proposes a solution to the rise of fake news that would not see tightened social constraints. Rather, he suggests institutional reform. Citizens need to be better educated to determine for themselves what is falsehood rather than relying on the media or the state to tell them. Journalists also need better resources so they can properly investigate sources. By operating on a business model, the media has turned into a 24-hour news stream that produces quantity of content over quality of content. Instead of competing with rival outlets to publish first, if many of the stories containing false or misleading information had the chance to be properly investigated before publication they would reveal an entirely different story.
Unfortunately in a world where news is being updated constantly, only half the story is made available and the blanks are filled in later. Schietel points out that half the problem is people using any news source to back up their own personal biases. “If there is a news angle they don’t like or a story breaks that discredits their beliefs, they can just find a news source that will support them, or worse yet, create that news source,” she said.
Finding a source, whether it is truth or not, to back up one’s own biases was yet another problem identified on the campaign trail. When opposing factions refuse to engage in debate and brand their opponents as liars to prevent them from speaking out, freedom of speech is jeopardized in such a way that most people would not consider acceptable in a democratic society. When speech that goes against the conventional ruling is oppressed, it isn’t eliminated – it festers. Polls weren’t able to predict Trump’s victory in the US election because so many of his supporters were afraid to voice their opinions. They were labeled deplorable and their speech was censored because much of what Trump said was non-conventional without even taking into account the accusations of racism and sexism. The same scenario played out in Britain on June 23. The island nation voted to separate from the European Union, and the result was a shock to many of its opponents. Supporters of Brexit were silent until they reached the election booth.
As the world descends into chaos, the common person is obliged to give up their freedom for the sake of controlling the hysteria. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said on Last Week Tonight that, “You shouldn’t change your behaviour because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing. If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, it means we don’t care about those values very much.”
Misinformation has the power to destroy the common person’s trust in the media, but if the hysteria can’t be contained, we’ll soon find ourselves in a situation where we no longer have the right to speak out, and that’s a far more frightening prospect than hearing lies from our politicians.
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