Fake it until you make it? The consequences of misinformation for democracy
Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Communication and Democracy Section Vice-Chair
Södertörn University, Sweden
Communication and Democracy Section Vice-Chair
Roskilde University, Denmark
Communication and Democracy Section Chair
The concept of “fake news” has gained traction, in particular over the last year and because of the US Presidential elections. The latest revelations connected to the win of Donald Trump highlight the crucial implications of the deliberate spreading of misleading information for democratic conduct and the decision-making process. Of course, “fake news” is not a new phenomenon: tabloids have long reproduced exaggerations and lies with dire consequences both for individuals and public life. In the UK, the Leave campaign largely benefited from such fake news about the dangers posed by immigrants and refugees as well as the horrors imposed by the EU. At the same time, however, “fake news” seems to have become an umbrella term encompassing what has hitherto been discussed as mass manipulation, propaganda, but also satire. It has also become a buzzword for everyone doubting the validity of media and journalism. Trump himself notoriously uses the label to attack the media that criticise him.
Its seemingly all-encompassing nature aside, the concept of “fake news” has permeated both public and academic discourse and has posed significant questions. Optimistic narratives about the democratic nature of digital media and the potentialities of citizen journalism have been substituted by anxieties about the difficulties faced by citizens in spotting fake news on online media platforms, as well as more critical discussions about the systemic conditions that create incentives for the production and circulation of “fake news”.
It is here that the dominance of simplified and quantified metrics in the evaluation of sources and actors and their online visibility needs to be questioned. Algorithms turn users’ clicks into the means to increased visibility on Google searches, social media news feed and the online space overall. This means succumbing to sensationalism and exaggeration. Due to embedded assumptions about authority and validity, there is a widespread belief that such visibility is also a guarantee of truthfulness and legitimacy of a cause. Politicians and their supporters, on whom the focus has been since the US elections, are not the only ones prone to the lures of algorithmic visibility. Social movements and NGOs alike have to use users’ online clicks to reinforce their presence on online platforms, with the risk of contributing to moral binaries and sensationalism.
The mentality of exaggeration, “fake news” and clickbait have also infiltrated academia. In the neoliberal university that focuses on measurable outcomes such as publication metrics, gaining visibility and attention, and consequently citations, is crucial. One strategy here is the overemphasis of controversy and conflict over scientific knowledge production. The latest debate around an article defending colonialism and suggesting the re-colonialisation of certain areas of the world published in the Third World Quarterly, which led to the partial resignation of the journal's editorial board, is just one example of academics adopting the clickbait practices that dominate other publication areas. When success is defined by metrics, academic rigour becomes irrelevant.
In the age of digital media, information is abundant. In this context our attention emerges as a scarce commodity and a resource for power and visibility. “Fake news” and clickbait are a strategy for navigating the attention economy successfully. For political discourse, this means the predominance of exaggerations, sensationalism and polarised politics over sober analysis, constructive criticism and any attempt at truthfulness. Such developments further undermine public trust in the media and political institutions, and ultimately democratic conduct. In this vicious circle of misinformation creating the conditions for more “fake news”, citizens are left with no knowledge and information resources and are at the mercy of the cacophony of a news environment where truthful information appears interchangeably with fake news. Such a political environment also opens up space for clickbait, for provocative personalities to take over the political stage.
For academics concerned with the media and its democratic role, the question of “fake news” demands a reconsideration of previously observed techno-optimism and an inquiry into the social and cultural conditions under which “fake news” emerge and are consumed. It also poses the issue of how academic criticism can be disseminated in a way that serves the public and helps media users in their evaluation of news sources and online information. In this context, involvement in programmes of media literacy and public engagement appear to be a much better course of action than the reproduction of a metric-obsessed publication system.