The focus of this paper is on fake news as an issue of debate in the contexts of the media, culture, and communications in the modern society. The choice of this issue for focus in the following analysis is appropriate and relevant owing to the emergence of fake news as a threat to the society and the critical role of the media and the internet in the modern society, particularly in terms of the empowerment of citizens to engage actively in democratic processes to improve social welfare. In particular, fake news has emerged as an issue of concern in the society following the U.S. elections of 2016. In the analysis, the paper adopts the “What’s the Problem” approach as Carol Bacchi proposes, including representations of the problem among stakeholders and the effects connected to these representations of the “problem”.
The internet’s rise in the past few decades has fostered a revolution in the approaches and modes of social contact and communications across the world. It has sponsored a means for overcoming the traditional challenges that impeded efficient communications in the past, including physical and intercultural boundaries. Nonetheless, in the wake of the elections of 2016 in the U.S., concern has emerged and grown in the global society about the impact that the internet has in the spreading of “fake news”. By its nature, “fake news” involves a focus on disinformation or hoaxes. Unhealthy propaganda and deception represent the premise of false news on social media platforms. Social media platforms on the internet, such as Facebook, have a profoundly different structure relative to other traditional media technologies (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017, p.211). The users of these platforms have the liberty to share content without editorial evaluations, filtering, and fact-checking by third parties. They also can reach a huge audience that rivals that of established networks such as CNN or The New York Times. These capacities characterize the foundation of the power of social media, particularly in terms of concerns about the impact that fake news, including false and misleading information, as the 2016 U.S. elections illustrated. Allcott and Gentzkow (2017, p.223) note the outcome of the research that the most popular news stories had higher and more extensive shares on social media platforms on the internet, particularly Facebook, relative to the most popular news stories on the traditional, mainstream channels.
The following analysis reveals that fake news represents a critical threat to a society's democracy because of its breach of the ethics, professionalism, and credibility that are vital to establish and strengthen the role and value of the media as a watchdog and guardian for public interest, and as a channel between the governing and the governed in a society. The huge potential and power of social media in sharing false and misleading news to a huge audience presents a highly potent threat to democracy. This is since misinformation has a devastating potential to erode both the capacity of a society's members to further their interests through processes of democracy and the ideals of justice themselves. A combination of creative and innovative technological methods and efforts to leverage the crowd to detect and reduce the sharing of misinformation is essential to address the sources of generation and sharing of these stories at the level of individual users.
The mass media serves as an essential element for the wellbeing of society and democracy based on its power to check the excesses of both the society and the government. Coronel (n.d, p.1) observes the widespread recognition of societies that the media, collectively called the Fourth Estate, have a critical role in the establishment and maintenance of democracy. Aside from the susceptibility in the modern media to superficial and sensationalist news, the concept that the Fourth Estate is an important guardian and watchdog for the interests of citizens and offers a critical channel linking the citizens and leaders remains strong. The media is essential in empowering citizens to take up active roles in advancing their welfare through its exposure of the excesses of those who hold power, including magistrates, legislators, and the leaders of government (Coronel, n.d., p.4-5). Nevertheless, this decisive role of the media in democracy remains practical only in the context of an environment that is enabling to facilitate its performance. Together with political freedom to investigate and report stories and reach a broad audience, the media also need mechanisms to guarantee their accountability to the public and ensure adherence to ethical and professional standards. Coronel (n.d., p.19) and Butler (2018, p.421-422) note that the media’s objectivity prevails when media establishments operate and serve at liberty from the influences of owners or governments, are financially viable and operate in a competitive atmosphere.
These assessments imply that a genuinely democratic society requires the active and effective participation of society members/citizens. The media's performance of their responsibilities in a competent way ensures that the citizens are empowered, and can engage in the mechanisms of governance based on appropriate actions and responses to prevailing or emerging needs in the environment of democracy. In the obligation of the media to disseminate information, they facilitate the capacities of citizens to engage in informed decision-making, including in the choices of political representatives and determination of the public policies to endorse (Coronel, n.d., p.13). Based on these assessments, various efforts are necessary to facilitate the media’s competent performance of their mandate and responsibility as a guardian and watchdog for public interest and a mediating channel between society members and the political class. Coronel (n.d. p.19-22) identifies these efforts as the protection of rights of the media, enhancement of the media’s accountability, the building and promotion of media’s capacity, and democratization of access to the media.
This discussion on the value and role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy is essential to understand the representations of false news as a problem in society and for democracy. Various perspectives on fake news illustrate its role in undermining the media's responsibility towards society through an adverse impact on the elements of democratization of the media process and the media's accountability. One important perspective of fake news as a problem concerns the development of changed views of the objectivity of journalism. March (2012, p.246-247) observes that the advent and extensive utilization of online social media platforms such as blogs and Facebook that permit the generation and sharing of customized content has influenced young people’s adoption of changing attitudes towards, and views of, the objectivity of journalism. The platforms have altered how society members access news information and the preferences of society members concerning the format of news delivery. Marchi (2012, p.249-252) utilizes the outcomes of interviews with 61 youths from diverse social and racial backgrounds to illustrate the changing perceptions and attitudes of the meaning of being enlightened or knowledgeable owing to the influences of fake news and social media. Rather than news that is objective and balanced, youths now show a preference for opinionated news. Marchi observes that this trend underlines the authority and power of fake news available on social media platforms relative to the mainstream media, particularly among youths.
Fake news represents a novel challenge for the modern age. As a way of demonstrating the potential impact of false news on society, Gray (2017, para.4-6) describes the outcome of his online search for an answer to a straightforward question inquiring about the identity of the first president of America. The search's outcome indicated that the country had had 7 Black leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower. This result showed the problem of a breakdown of sources of trusted information owing to the infiltration of fake news, "post-truth", or "alternative facts" in today's society. The writer identifies this as a significant challenge for the society because the world's various problems are difficult to address adequately in the absence of a set of facts on which society members can agree and consider as standard knowledge. Aside from the alarming nature of the information that social media users generate and share, fake news represents a threat to the democratic process in societies (Greg, 2017, p.33-34; McGonagle, 2017, p.204). This is since citizens require information that is of high quality and accurate if they are to make correct and valid decisions that could promote their interests and wellbeing. When a significant share of a society's members have wrong facts or information concerning issues, they face huge difficulties in engaging effectively and competently in democratic processes. As an illustration, Gray (2017, para.9-12) observes research findings at the end of 2016 that 64% of adult Americans were confused over fundamental facts of current issues and events owing to the extensive sharing of made-up stories.
In further evidence of the role of fake news in defeating or undermining the capacity of citizens to engage effectively and advance their interests through democratic mechanisms, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017, p.212) quantified the significance of social media relative to other information sources in the elections of 2016 in the United States. Using a review of web browsing information and an online survey of 1,200 participants in the period following the election, the researchers noted that social media represented an important source of information for Americans. About 14% of citizens regarded social media as their most useful source of news concerning the election (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017, p.223). In the period preceding the election, the researchers identified 115 and 41 false pro-Trump and pro-Clinton news articles that social media users shared 30.3m and 7.6m times respectively. The implication was that there were about 300% more articles of false news that favored the eventual winner relative to those favoring the loser. In their evaluation of the effect of these articles based on the assumption that the impact of false news on shares of votes was uniform across the country, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017, p.223-224) concluded that the average fake story shared on social media equaled the persuasive effect of 36 campaign ads on TV.
The principal challenge in the rise of false news relates to the new character of truth. It allows the web of peers on social media platforms to order the “truth”, adopting the roles of the “authority” for facts and in effect displacing the role of traditional authorities in this process. Fake news adopts the form of fabricated stories that individuals share with peers and friends, to nurture resentment, fear, and anger from the viewpoint of psychological warfare (Lenarz, 2017, para.6). The generators of these stories apply them as "weapon" information for strategic advantages in influencing public opinion. These stories serve to influence distortions, lies, and myths that shape the sociopolitical landscape. The critical element of fake news as a problem for societies and democracies relates to the basis of these stories on an element of truth. Representations of alternative facts sow mistrust between citizens and their governments, thereby undermining the social contract that reinforces and underlies democracy (Lenarz, 2017, para.10). The impact of false news is to promote citizens’ inability to differentiate between falsehoods and facts relating to relevant issues on their societies, thereby undermining their competent choices of political leaders and public polices in efforts to advance their wellbeing.
O’Grady (2017, para.2-5) notes that fake news is a danger to democracy for its effect of assault on the reliability and integrity of the political process, the political class, and influences of the mainstream media on democracy. It influences the development of a lack of faith in the powers of political debate and election and the development of conspiracy theories. It ruins the perceptions of citizens about democracy and promotes their distrust of the mainstream media, which undermines the Fourth Estate's performance of its watchdog and guardianship responsibilities for the public interest.
Analysts have noted that the virtual nature of the internet and the evolving nature of technology make it highly ineffective to control the internet and information shared on it. It is not possible to anticipate individuals’ activities of generating and sharing false stories from an active perspective, such that governments and societies can only typically adopt reactive, rather than proactive, measures to address the problem. Instead, governments and societies have focused on educating the public to identify and avoid false stories on the internet. Nonetheless, a significant weakness of this approach is that it is dependent on the judgment and commitment of the users of social media platforms themselves at an individual level. Haciyakupoglu et al. (2018, p.6-9) and Turk (2018, p.18-20) observe that fighting and controlling the problem of fake news needs to involve the application of creative and innovative technological methods to address the sources of generation and sharing of these stories at the level of individual users. At the same time, it is essential for technology companies, societies, and governments to leverage the crowd to detect and reduce the sharing or spread of misinformation and fake news through effective mechanisms of flagging and reporting (Kim et al., 2018, p.1-2). This approach would involve a collective society effort and dedication towards combating the problem through education, awareness, and active engagement.
This review has illustrated the potent threat of fake news on democracy. This threat has a basis on the role of fake news in breaching the professionalism, ethics, and credibility aspects that are essential in preserving the watchdog and guardianship roles of the media for the public interest. Misinformation originating from fake news on social media platforms undermines the capacities of citizens to engage actively in efforts to advance their interests based on accurate information. The sharing of these stories involves the weaponization of information to influence public opinion in ways that yield strategic advantages for generators of the information. A combination of creative and innovative technological methods and efforts to leverage the crowd to detect and reduce the sharing of misinformation is essential to address the sources of generation and sharing of these stories at the level of individual users.
Allcott, H, & Gentzkow, M 2017. Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Stanford University Paper. https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf
Butler, A 2018. “Protecting the Democratic Role of the Press: A Legal Solution to Fake News”. Washington University Law Review vol.96, pp.419-440.
Coronel, S n.d. The Role of the Media in deepening Democracy. United Nations Document. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan010194.pdf
Gray, R 2017, March 1. Lies, Propaganda, and Fake News: A Challenge for our Age. BBC Future http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170301-lies-propaganda-and-fake-news-a-grand-challenge-of-our-age
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