Governments face delicate balancing act in fight against fake news

Governments face delicate balancing act in fight against fake news

Disinformation, propaganda, political deception and dishonesty are by no means new phenomena. Yet, with the US presidential election of 2016, a new term entered our social-political discourse: Fake news. 

A few days before the election, BuzzFeed, an American internet media and news company, revealed to the world what may be regarded as the first instance of the modern version of fake news. Apparently, in the small town of Veles in Macedonia, a group of young social media enthusiasts launched at least 140 US politics websites. Most of these sites had American-sounding domain names and posted conspicuously pro-Trump content, rallying conservative-minded supporters of the future president, mainly by making up baseless stories aimed at smearing the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. For them it was not an ideological stand but a money-maker in a world in which even facts are in the eyes of the beholder; yet those who were behind them saw a sinister opportunity to influence the political process by distorting and manipulating reality.

This confirmed what Simeon Yates, of the University of Liverpool, argued at the time: That “the economics of social media favor gossip, novelty, speed and ‘shareability.’ They mistake sociability for social value.” Fake news appeals to existing prejudices and, as a result, is more likely to be “liked” and consequently to generate more revenue for those who make it up. 

What might have been for these youngsters a formative entrepreneurial experience has turned into one of the major contemporary challenges for our societies and our political processes. Since then, the constant dissemination of false and misleading information into the public debate, thereby influencing individuals and groups’ behavior, has grown into global concern of mythological proportions — with some serious justification, one hastens to add. The social order is based on trust, and its sources of information must be regarded as credible by those who consume it. Social media is an enabler for the quick spread of faceless information, which makes it a near-perfect platform for opportunistic charlatans from all walks of life. 

In a recent speech in honor of the late Nelson Mandela ahead of the 100th anniversary of his birth, former US President Barack Obama lamented the ushering in of an era in which “people just make stuff up”

 Yossi Mekelberg

Deception, be it economic or political, is almost too tempting for unscrupulous vested interests to engage in. It leaves the average consumer of information perplexed and distrustful; but still entertained, however, and willing to participate in the charade. It is also the case that, if elections can be affected, what can then prevent interested individuals, organizations or countries from attempting to influence the day-to-day running of other countries to serve their own interests?

In a recent speech in honor of the late Nelson Mandela ahead of the 100th anniversary of his birth, former US President Barack Obama lamented the ushering in of an era in which “people just make stuff up.” In his characteristically candid fashion, he noted that all politicians lie, but there is now an upward spiral of state-sponsored propaganda and internet fabrications. Worse, he argued: “We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.” Coming from someone who was leading a superpower, his warning should make us all cringe. After all, those are the people to whom we entrust our safety, livelihood and general well-being. 

It is no longer a question of whether fake news is or is not a new phenomenon; its sheer intensity and speed, and in many cases the difficulty involved in tracing its source, make it fundamentally different from similar, well-established phenomena such as propaganda and disinformation. No surprise, then, that in many countries independent investigations are under way to explore what exactly it is, how it affects political processes and societies, and how to tackle it before it takes over the entire social-political discourse. 

The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the European Parliament, and the Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics have all carried out independent investigations. An investigation led by Special Counsel for the US Department of Justice and former director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, as well as a number of congressional committees, are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, and much of this interference took the form of spreading disinformation via social media. 

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK Parliament published a report last week that stressed that, while addressing the challenge of fake news is of the utmost importance, it is still in its very early stages. A prime difficulty in countering fake news is that there is no clear definition of what it is and what it is not. Such a definition would enable regulations to be devised and interventions to be made in order to eliminate fake news and its harmful impact.

However, the term has taken on a variety of meanings, including one that entails a complete dismissal of any news item, statement or analysis that the reader disagrees with. This is more a matter of convenience rather than whether it is true or not, and is used as an attempt to silence criticism. There is a general agreement that fake news should be defined as that which propagates false information, such as fabricated content, manipulated and misleading content, false content, and false context connection, but which is also a threat to freedom of speech, and it is argued that satire and parody should be included too. Here is where the real danger lies: That in trying to save society from being misinformed, governments might end up muzzling legitimate forms of taking the powerful to task. 

Fake news has presented us with a reality where technology is advancing much faster and in more unpredictable directions than we are capable of adequately responding to. This has created space for the opportunistic and unscrupulous to exploit human weaknesses. Facebook might have lost a big chunk of its market value, and the demise of Cambridge Analytica might signal the beginning of the fight back. However, there must be a more robust response from governments to restore the balance between freedom of speech and deceiving the public to the detriment of free, honest and democratic societies. 

  •  Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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