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In November, Donald Trump stunned the world when he defeated Democratic rival Hilary Clinton to win the 45th presidency of the USA. In the aftermath of the result, attempting to explain what seemed like such an upset, BuzzFeed News released a report claiming that fake or hoax news stories with headlines such as “The pope loves Trump” outperformed legitimate stories in the final months of campaigning [Ref: BuzzFeed]. Thus, some commentators have claimed that untrue stories had persuaded undecided voters to vote for Trump [Ref: Independent], and highlight a broader problem facing Western Democracy after the Brexit vote, that we have entered an era of “Post-truth” politics [Ref: New Statesman]. Many see the proliferation of social media sites in the last ten years, as a key component of the problem; because of instant ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, once a story is discovered to be fake or untrue, the damage is often already done. As a result, these critics argue that social media sites need to make a more concerted effort to police content and filter out stories that are untrue for the democratic good [Ref: Guardian]. However, others claim that the panic over fake news is just a ploy to shut down free speech, with one commentator arguing that applying pressure to companies like Facebook to take down certain types of news, is the first step on the slippery slope toward regulating online debate [Ref: Telegraph]. In some quarters, the fake news panic is seen as more evidence of the mainstream media failing to do its job of objectively searching for truth, and claim that the electorate are smart enough to decide for themselves what to believe, without news being filtered out online [Ref: spiked]. Does fake news online pose any serious threat to the nature of our discourse, or should we trust people to figure out what is and isn’t true? Should social media sites filter out fake news stories?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Policing social media?
BuzzFeed claims that the 20 top-performing false election stories from ‘hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs’ generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook in the final three months of the US election campaign; compared to 7,367,000 shares, reactions and comments for the 20 top-performing election stories from 19 major news outlets [Ref: BuzzFeed]. Further investigation showed that many of the fabricated stories came from surprising sources: non-partisan teens in Macedonia looking to profit financially [Ref: BuzzFeed], as well as politically motivated members of what has been dubbed the ‘alt-right’, and online messaging boards such as 4chan and 8chan [Ref: Guardian]. In the context of a Pew Research report highlighting that 62 percent of American adults get the majority of their news from social media sites [Ref: Tech Crunch], Barack Obama expressed concern that, “if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” [Ref: Guardian] And for critics: “Fake news is an assault on truth” [Ref: BBC News], as it interferes with the ability of the public to seriously engage with political discourse, because: “With facts passé, the next inexorable move is to reduce all news to the same level of distrust and disbelief. If nothing is true, then everything can be false.” [Ref: Washington Post] Whilst few would argue that Macedonian teenagers creating false news stories is a good thing in and of itself, some are concerned that attempts to police social media content will lead to an attack on outlets simply because they do not agree with the mainstream media, thus stifling any dissenting voices and limiting free speech [Ref: New American]. Angela Epstein opines in the Telegraph that policing social media because it influences people in a certain way is risky: “What is at stake is free speech. To regulate is take the first step on the clichéd slippery slope to totalitarian control of online debate.” [Ref: Telegraph] This idea was evident in a list of fake news sites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, which included sites such as Breitbart, the Huffington Post and InfoWars [Ref: Los Angeles Times]. As such, critics ask who at Facebook, or other social media sites will decide what is “true” (and allowed to be read) and what isn’t [Ref: Telegraph]?
A failing of social media or mainstream media?
Critics suggest that the fake news controversy post-Brexit and the US election, is the culmination of longer standing neglect on the part of social media. They argue that Facebook in particular, has simultaneously taken credit for its role in enabling friction free conversation for pro-democracy movements across the globe, and yet denied any moral responsibility for its role in distributing misinformation, which has contributed to a “poisoning” of democracy [Ref: Guardian]. Moreover, it is suggested that social media, unlike mainstream media resources such as newspapers, has no gatekeeper to protect objectivity, and separate news from opinion. With the problem further exacerbated by the fact that false stories can create a much larger impact than they would have in the past, due to the interconnectivity that the internet provides [Ref: Guardian]. Yet, others counter that the crisis of objectivity is a much broader problem, and the mainstream media are not free from blame either. “It is the Western World’s own abandonment of objectivity, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, that has nurtured something of a free for all on the facts and news front” as one commentator observes [Ref: spiked]. Furthermore, for the past two-decades, Western news reporting has openly called into question its own definitiveness, declaring objectivity undesirable and instead offered its increasingly technical or emotional take on what might, or might not, have happened [Ref: The Week]. These critics note that in the wake of fake news, it is more important than ever that traditional media plays its part in winning the battle of ideas, and helping people make political decisions [Ref: The Times].
Making up our minds
“What we are now calling fake news – misinformation that people fall for, is nothing new” [Ref: New Yorker] according to writer Nicholas Lemann. For example, religious authorities in the 15th century worried that the invention of the printing press would lead to heresy warping the minds of the public [Ref: spiked], and some argue that: “Fake news and viral conspiracy theories have been with us since the dawn of time, and fake email chains went viral long before Mark Zuckerberg got his first dial-up line, let alone started Facebook.” [Ref: The Week] If this is the case, why is fake news so contentious now? One answer posited by some, is that the fake news debate is simply an expression of a paternalistic and censorious attitude towards the public, with the proliferation of news on the internet not the negative it is said to be by critics, due to the fact that “it implicitly calls on the citizen to use his own mental and moral muscles, to confront the numerous different versions of the world offered to him, and decide which one sounds most right.” [Ref: spiked] Despite this, others disagree, highlighting the fact that the technology behind social media is something entirely new, making fake news on social media a completely novel and distinct problem. The algorithms that generate social media newsfeeds for example, are produced by people who think they know, and often do know, the kind of things we like – and direct this content to us [Ref: New Yorker]. For critics of fake news, this can create enclaves of like-minded people, turning social media into a mechanism for distributing propaganda to the audiences most likely to believe it [Ref: New Yorker]. With everything considered, is the panic surrounding fake news simply the response of an elite reeling at undesirable democratic decisions, or is it a genuine threat to reasoned debate? Should social media sites filter out fake news stories, or are attempts to do so censorship? And ultimately, in the digital age can the public be trusted to decipher the real from the fake?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
In light of fake news and advocacy journalism, we must be savvy news consumers
Larry Atkins Huffington Post 6 December 2016
This analysis shows how fake election news stories outperformed real news on Facebook
Craig Silverman BuzzFeed 16 November 2016
Fake news is changing the way we see the world. We have to face up to what that means
Tom Watson MP Independent 22 November 2016
Obama is worried about fake news on social media – and we should be too
Nicky Woolf Guardian 20 November 2016
How fake news goes viral: a case study
Sapna Maheshwari New York Times 20 November 2016
Click and elect: how fake news helped Donald Trump win a real election
Hannah Jane Parkinson Guardian 14 November 2016
The crushing anxiety behind the media’s fake news hysteria
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry The Week 12 December 2016
War on fake news part of a war on free speech
Ron Paul New American 12 December 2016
Fake news and post-truth: the handmaidens of Western relativism
Brendan O’Neill spiked 25 November 2016
The panic over fake news on Facebook is just the latest liberal ploy to shut down free speech
Angela Epstein Telegraph 18 November 2016
Algorithms can help stomp out fake news
Kaveh Waddell Atlantic 7 December 2016
Solving the problem of fake news
Nicholas Lehmann New Yorker 30 November 2016
The real problem behind fake news
Will Oremus Slate 15 November 2016
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Fake news: too important to ignore
Amol Rajan BBC News 16 January 2017
Why in the post-truth age, the bullshitters are winning
Laurie Penny New Statesman 6 January 2017
The fake news scare is itself, fake news
Jordan Shapiro Forbes 26 December 2016
Fake news – why people believe it and what can be done to counter it
Simeon Yates The Conversation 13 December 2016
When all news is fake, whom do we trust?
Ruth Marcus Watson Washington Post 12 December 2016
Why the fake news debate gets it wrong
Steven Rosenbaum Forbes 12 December 2016
Trump supporters say fake news is just as big of a problem on the left
Stephanie McNeal BuzzFeed 7 December 2016
Fake news an insidious trend that’s fast becoming a global problem
Kate Connolly, Angelique Chrisafis, Poppy McPherson et al Guardian 2 December 2016
Three ways Facebook could reduce fake news without censorship
Jennifer Stromer-Galley The Conversation 2 December 2016
Here’s the truth: fake news is not social media’s fault
Roy Greenslade Guardian 23 November 2016
How to report fake news to social media
BBC News 22 November 2016
For the new yellow journalists opportunity comes in clicks and bucks
Terrence McCoy Washington Post 20 November 2016
As fake news takes over Facebook feeds, many are taking satire as fact
Nicky Woolf Guardian 17 November 2016
‘Post-truth’ named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries
Guardian 15 November 2016
The Times 15 November 2016
Facebook’s failure: did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?
Olivia Solon Guardian 10 November 2016
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Facebook, Twitter and Google could face ‘fake news’ questions from MPs
Sky News 15 January 2017
Facebook to roll out fake news tools in Germany
BBC News 15 January 2017
Conspirator in chief: 14 fake news stories created or publicized by Donald Trump
Salon 14 January 2017
‘You are fake news’: Trump attacks CNN and BuzzFeed at press conference
Guardian 11 January 2017
Edward Snowden: fight fake news with truth, not censorship
Newsweek 13 December 2016
John McDonnell says inquiries into fake news are an ‘assault’ on independent media
BuzzFeed 10 December 2016
“Lives are at risk” Hillary Clinton warns against fake news
TIME 8 December 2016
Pope Francis compares fake news consumption to eating faeces
Guardian 7 December 2016
Merkel warns against fake news driving populist gains
Yahoo 23 November 2016
Want to keep fake news out of your newsfeed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid
Los Angles Times 15 November 2016
62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, says report
Tech Crunch 26 May 2016
What is the truth about post-factual politics?
Battle of Ideas 23 October 2016
The moral code of social media
Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 17 November 2012