Beyond fake news. The anatomy of misinformation
[Versió catalana] [Versión castellana]
Lecturer at the Faculty of Communication and International Relations
Blanquerna - Ramon Llull University
Antonia Ferrer Sapena
Lecturer at the Department of Audiovisual Communication, Documentation and Art History
Valencia Polytechnic University
In November 1961, John F. Kennedy said to the members of the California Democratic Party, "there have always been those on the fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan or a convenient scapegoat" (Kennedy, 1961). Sixty years later, the US president's words retain their full force, although the cold war media ecosystem has little to do with the current hybrid media system.
Political parties across the ideological spectrum, businesses, lobby groups, activists, populist movements, advocates of conspiracy theories and an extensive cast of actors from the new public sphere frequently use the strategy that Kennedy criticized back then. However, they now do so in a context that makes it easier for these false solutions to reach a large number of citizens and therefore they can weaken the very foundations of Western democracies.
For years, these individuals or protest movements based on reductionist discourses, critical of difference and hostile to authority (whatever its nature: political, scientific, etc.) have lived on the periphery of society (offline) without access to mass media. However, first the Internet (webpages, blogs, etc.) and then social networks have made it possible for them to become major movements. As Thompson (1995) points out, digitization has made it easier for technologically interconnected individuals to exercise symbolic power, including the ability to intervene in events, to influence the thinking of others and to create real events. Previously this power had been in the hegemonic hands of the media (and advertising), but now any individual can generate content that can have a global impact for better or worse.
The democratization of this power is occurring at a time when several elements are converging. The media, which had exercised this symbolic power exclusively, have plunged into a strong crisis of trust and legitimacy (Newman [et al.], 2020; Eurobarometer, 2018). Post-truth is part of our daily lives and questions the objective facts in journalistic and political discourses, replacing them with personal emotions and beliefs. Citizens take refuge in those spaces where their convictions are not only not questioned, but also reinforced. Echo chambers and filter bubbles become the ideal environments for these beliefs to grow and become consolidated; and all this in a political context characterized by strong polarization.
This combination of factors, among others, generates the perfect culture medium for misinformation to proliferate in any of its forms. It is clear that misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but rather it has always existed. Examples have been identified right back in the Roman times; however, never, until now, has it been possible to spread misinformation so effectively and massively. The production and dissemination of fake news is not exclusive to those groups on the margins of society we mentioned above. An authentic industry of lies has grown around misinformation. Traditional actors, governments, political parties and economic powers have taken advantage of it and promoted it. Examples include the coming to power of Trump and Bolsonaro, Brexit and the emergence of the extreme right in Europe. Behind their campaigns we find companies like Cambridge Analytica, SLC Group, Quickmobile, MSM Market and the Internet Research Agency.
To combat the flow of fake content, national and supranational governments as well as private corporations have promoted many coordinated actions and initiatives aimed at reducing the effects of misinformation. In 2018, for example, the European Union presented the Action Plan against Disinformation. The World Health Organization, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, also launched several actions aimed at minimizing the impact of fake news about the pandemic on the world's population as a whole. The large technological platforms, either due to their own initiative or motivated by these international institutions, have also developed actions with the same objective. These initiatives have focused on promoting technological solutions, some based on machine learning, for identifying and eliminating illegal or false content, as well as designing warnings to decrease the spread of misinformation. Another important line of action developed by big tech has been to promote agreements with the main data fact-checkers. In Spain, for example, Maldita, Newtral and EFE are responsible for checking the fake rumours circulating on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The three media are part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an association that forms the core of the team of fact-checkers who collaborate with Mark Zuckerberg's company.
Despite efforts to promote the fight against misinformation, recent research has shown that most initiatives implemented to uncover misleading content have a limited effect (Nyhan [et al.], 2020; Clayton [et al.], 2020; Pennycook; Rand, 2018). False information spreads faster than true information (Vosoughi; Roy; Aral, 2018), and the effect of fact-checking revealing misinformation does not translate into a greater ability to recognize false content on the same topic (Wagner, 2020).
Given these circumstances, the fight against misinformation must be accompanied by other initiatives involving citizens and the media. Media literacy campaigns are needed, such as those already promoted by fact-checkers themselves, but they must go beyond just offering advice on identifying false news. We tend to consider false that which goes against our way of perceiving and understanding the world.
It is necessary to encourage ideologically diverse media consumption, facilitate democratic conversation and pop the filter bubbles. To do this, the media must play a decisive role. Some media have created their own verification units, similar to fact-checkers, but they need to go further and offer different views than those of the editorial line itself to encourage internal pluralism. This is not a trivial decision for media firms, but the debate of ideas is vital in order to create the critical awareness necessary to prevent or restrict the impact of misinformation. Only in this way will the media be able to regain the citizens’ trust.
As Andersen and Søe (2020) point out, fake news is a communicative action we must live with, and it cannot be solved exclusively through technological measures, but rather by fostering democratic conversation.
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