Fake news is a myth

by | 7 Mar 2018

The Fake News Series #4

A myth? How dare I? That must be fake news. It sure grabbed your attention, but I’m not even (completely) lying; there are signs that the whole fake news concept is exaggerated. So how fake is fake news actually?

 

A problem to be fought?

We’ve been hearing the term for over a year in the media and it seems there is already a consensus about the concept: it’s a problem and it has to be fought. That is why the EU, Facebook, and the traditional media have set up their fact checking / anti fake news campaigns. But these movements against fake news are sometimes as unscientific as the fake news that they are trying to contest.

Why? Because most of our knowledge on fake news comes from the mainstream media (who have to protect their business model and credibility) and personal experiences (which are not always a good representation of reality).

 

Fake news for hard cash

Of course everybody knows by now that fake news and misinformation are not a new phenomena; it’s just a very visible issue nowadays. But we don’t have a clear idea how big the problem actually is; we just heard some horrific stories about Macedonian teens who write fake news for hard cash and about foreign entities meddling in elections.

 

Fake news during elections

It took a while, but the first results of proper research are finally coming in; in this case on the US elections. Guess what? The actual impact of fake news in the media diet of US citizens during the presidential elections in 2016 was much lower than most of us expected.

A new study done by three American universities – where they analysed the browsing history of 2,500 people – shows that one out of four Americans read at least one fake news article during the election period. But its impact was minimal since they are overshadowed by the bulk of what is called ‘hard news’. Fake news made up less than a percent of the total media diet of the average Clinton supporter. And Trump supporters were exposed to a total of 6,2% fake news of their total news input. Most of the fake news consumption (six out of ten visits) was also done by a small group; just 10% of Americans.

 

What are we fighting? 

Although researchers were not able to figure out how many people actually believed the fake news, their study does let one reconsider the actual effect of fake news. The most urgent problem is therefore not fake news itself, but the ways society deals with it. The solution to these challenges is not technical, as many people think. The same study also shows that Facebook’s fact checking efforts were almost useless. Nor are the solutions political, because that could lead to censorship (as the EU task-force has shown).

I believe the solution has to be cultural and social. The concept of fake news is largely shaped by the value our society gives it. We use it as an excuse, a weapon or as an enemy, without really understanding what fake news is and what it does. All the technical and political solutions that we devise are therefore ineffective; we’re fighting something we have yet to define.

 

The solution will come eventually

It’s crucial to keep contesting the concept of fake news, and not just fake news itself. It’s time to focus more on the debate on what fake news actually is about and what it means to us as a society. And don’t worry; the solutions will come eventually, when we finally figured out what the problem is.

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