Jeanmiguel Uva reviews the recent Department of Government public lecture titled ‘Why don’t we trust the news and what to do about it’ with speaker Ed Williams, which took place on Thursday 8 February 2018.
President Trump’s fake news awards represented the consolidation of the term fake news as part of the now mainstream political language in American politics. The rest of the Western world seems to be following suit. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer report, presented at the LSE by its UK CEO Ed Williams, highlights the increasing distrust in media as an institution, growing polarisation and the technological trends that surround the so-called phenomenon of fake news.
What’s going on? Does it matter?
Although an increasingly popular term, fake news is anything but a modern phenomenon. What is different this time around is the audience and scope, aided by global social media platforms. The real root of the problem is how this has arisen from a growing cynicism with media conglomerates. The Edelman Trust Barometer, a 33,000-person-survey conducted in 28 countries, shows that 59% of people say it is becoming harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation . This is worrisome for those who believe in liberal democracies, where political participation is rooted not only in being informed but having truthful knowledge of public affairs. It highlights that the media is losing its central role in society and citizens are not doing enough to protect themselves from distortive content.
Another key insight revealed how news outlets and the individuals who run their operations have lost touch with the average person. In a special UK supplement to the global survey, British adults who were switching off from the news attributed their behaviour to the news being depressing (40%), biased (33%), and controlled by hidden agendas (27%). Further, one-fifth of the UK population said they are avoiding the news altogether, according to Edelman.
This has resulted in a market of less engaged citizens. In the UK, for example, Edelman reports the rise of a ‘nation of news skimmers’ where people’s attention span on news items has been decreasing, amidst a saturated market of news and increasing distrust. In 22 of 28 markets surveyed by Edelman the media as an institution is distrusted, which may explain why citizens might be switching off.
This context, of social media and technology enabling anti-democratic practices, was not envisioned by the gurus of Silicon Valley. Yet, what we have been experiencing is increasing segmentation of smaller communities, or eco-chambers, where individuals use their social media mediums to mainly interact with like-minded people.
Traditional media’s situation is not so gloomy. When assessing trust in news sources, Edelman’s report shows global trust in professional journalism increased 5 points from 54% to 59% since last year, whilst trust in platforms declined 2 points from 53% to 51%. As 2016 and 2017 posed significant challenges to traditional outlets we might start observing a public backlash of fake news, and those platforms which are increasingly perceived impotent against the menace of foreign cyber-intervention into electoral processes.
Measuring the impact of fake news is complicated. However, recent research by Guess et al (2017) has shown that in the 2016 US presidential election around 1 in 4 Americans visited fake news sites in the final two weeks of the campaign cycle. The research also showed, however, how concentrated this fake news consumption was. Viewing was localised to a small collective of mostly pro-Trump supporters, those already set in their voting preferences.
Ironically, the challenges to the credence of traditional media outlets, namely established newspapers, has brought financial benefits. As the media has been attacked by politicians such as President Trump, newspaper subscriptions and donations have risen. However, this is by no means a positive picture for the press as an institution. On closer inspection, what we are seeing is a rise in polarisation of the sources of news-consumption.
Fake news, in tune with the realities of social media, is clearly not a localised phenomenon – meaning its political implications are global. For example, Edelman’s global study found that nearly 7 out of 10 people worry about the use of fake news as a weapon. This concern follows the argument that dissemination of mass information is not only a peril for a functioning public sphere, but the security of our democratic states. The UK, as a result, has established a counter-propaganda unit in Brigade 77—in part to counter the possible use of fake news as a form of psychological warfare.
What can we do about it?
Or should we do anything about it? In short, yes. Dissemination of fake news is likely to cause polarisation in society, unfair distrust in institutions and the erosion of liberal democracy—all, namely, desirable goods. To stop fake news, we must look at trust afforded to the media, alongside soft and hard regulatory solutions.
The main problem of mainstream media relies not only on the content competition or rise of fake news, but admittedly, their legitimacy as a key institution in liberal democracies. Mr Williams, an ex-journalist himself, argued that those in the profession must fight to be heard. Journalists and outlets are not passive actors— rather, they have a supply-side power to attract the public. Fulfilling this role, in an unbiased, accountable, professional and representative way is a first step to regain public confidence.
This is challenged, however, by how traditional media outlets can financially compete in an era of social media news-consumption. Mr Williams proposes to find ways to balance journalistic standards and profitability. Rather than dis-investing in newsrooms and high-quality reporting, he argues, outlets should find ways to segment their markets with high-quality content.
More structural solutions are also needed. The growing editorial power of sites such as Google, Facebook or Twitter have meant customers demanding more control over content published on those networks. Reforms could also take the form of legal regulation. President Macron’s proposed legislation in France suggests giving judges special powers to eliminate or block news appraised as ‘fake’ during election time. A recently enforced law in Germany allows the government to fine up to €50 million social networks and media sites that don’t remove content deemed to be fake news, hate speech or illegal, 24 hours after being noticed. This debate has posed a pressing question about the role of the state as a regulator and freedom of speech in a democracy—ultimately, what and who should define what is a fake new?
News consumption is not necessarily top-down, and indeed consumers can also demand higher standards. Expecting consumers to be more aware and critical of the news they consume is important when dealing with the spread of fake news. Mr Williams believes that our focus should be on future generations: teaching younger citizens to be probing about what is presented to them without question or counterbalance.
Pundits such as Niall Ferguson have taken a specifically negative stand against social media networks, blaming them for the negative externalities they pose for democracies. Mr Williams believes that we should not demonise the messenger, but the message. Arguably, both are part of the important debate on what to do to fight back against mass misinformation. What is clear is that the increasing use of fake news poses important challenges to liberal democracies and social media has played a pivotal role in this rise. What type of regulation and action governments, companies and citizens take will affect the state of our democratic politics, and pose important challenges to the technology giants in Silicon Valley.
Jeanmiguel Uva holds a BSocSc Politics and International Relations (First class) degree from the University of Manchester and is currently pursuing an MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His research interests lie in electoral behaviour, populism, political communication and international security. You can follow him on twitter: @jeanm_uva.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.