Fake News; Real Politics

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Written by Lindsey Washington

How has the term fake news affected politics? Is fake news a useful term to describe the recent phenomenon? Is fake news a threat to democracy? In a fiery discussion at the recent Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum, a panel of journalists ranging from the New York Times, BBC, RT and Wikipedia, explained the difference between truly fake news and news used as a propaganda tool, and explored possible solutions to what seems to be a global problem.

There is a distinction between truly fake news and fake news used as a propaganda tool. The phenomenon of creating malicious information for political or financial purposes is an ongoing and serious threat; however, the term fake news does not differentiate between political fake news and truly fake news produced for profit by individuals.

The term fake news muddles the debate about the factuality of information. Misinformation is a longstanding aspect of information warfare; however, the term fake news acts as a catchall term used to describe unpleasant news or silence critique. In these cases, the term fake news becomes toxic and is in and of itself a threat.

The widespread use of the term fake news makes it difficult to judge the veracity of any allegations of journalistic wrongdoing. For example, the Russian news source, RT, faces widespread allegations of spreading misinformation, including allegations from President Macron of France. RT, represented in the panel by deputy Editor-in-Chief, Anna Belkina, voraciously denies that there is any evidence of wrongdoing and points the finger at other news sources; however, other panel speakers disagreed.

The phenomenon of widespread misinformation is a threat to democracy.  The prevalence of alternative, disreputable news sources reflects the deeper issues of dissatisfied consumers and a hyper partisan political environment.

Western consumers feel underserved by mainstream media outlets, leading them to seek out alternative media sources. Moreover, as Anna Belkina argues, these alternative sources, like RT, should not be demonized simply for being outside the mainstream. Joseph Kahn, managing editor of the New York Times, argues however, that it is not the role of mainstream outlets to provide information that confirms consumers’ partisan beliefs or biases.

Hyper partisanship is not a symptom of fake news, it is the cause. Western politics have become increasingly polarized over the last few decades. Rather than accept unbiased, nonpartisan news, consumers seem to search for information that supports their existing biases or partisan affiliations, often from disreputable sources.

The solution does not lie in governmental regulation. Although a solution is needed to slow the spread of misinformation, direct regulation of news sources by governmental agencies threatens both the freedom of speech and the freedom of press. However, there are a number of possible solutions such as grassroots movements, educational programs, better quality news, and the redesign of the media business model.

For vulnerable democracies, like Pakistan, direct government regulation of press represents an existential threat to democracy. As Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, testifies, free press has protected Pakistan’s democratic government from multiple military coups.

A better solution lies in grassroots solutions. For example, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, explained a proposal for Wiki tribune, which would pair citizen and professional journalists in order to bring the watchdog community of Wikipedia to mainstream journalism.

Education plays a role in halting the spread of fake news. Teaching journalism in primary and secondary schools would both increase the ability of citizens to do their own research and to differentiate between reputable and disreputable media sources.

Professional journalistic outlets must also do their part. There needs to be more quality news, greater attention paid to quality news, and more traction on the internet for quality news.

The business model of mainstream news must change. Each of the journalistic players must compete for ad dollars by getting more clicks on their news. This system places the wrong incentives in front of journalists. Advertising cannot be the main source of capital for media outlets.