A new year’s resolution for all: stop talking about fake news. Perhaps we should have stopped talking about it at the same time as we started. That, according to Google Trends, was the week after Donald Trump won the US presidential election in 2016, which suggests the interest was driven by astonished people looking for an explanation. Fake news was not the only scapegoat but it was, and still is, a popular one. It was even named the Word of the Year in 2017 by Collins Dictionary. Yet the phrase has long since ceased to be useful, and here are five reasons why.
First, fake news doesn’t mean anything — or rather, it means so many different things to different people as to be bewildering. Focus group studies conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that people placed various things under the “fake news” umbrella, including annoying pop-up advertisements, politicians making misleading claims, and newspapers with a political slant.
None of these match the original definition of fake news — at least, as I understand it — which referred to stories that were invented to win advertising clicks and impersonated or parodied genuine journalism. The most famous example was when the Pope was “reported” to have endorsed Mr Trump’s presidential candidacy.
Such stories were widely shared, and while some claimed to be humour or satire, the basic motive was monetary. It is cheap to invent lies, and eye-catching lies are a reliable source of clicks and thus advertising dollars. No wonder journalists became irate: for so many outlets, real news had become unprofitable yet fake news is a money-spinner.
But for all the people determined to believe that the Pope’s fictional endorsement had swung the election for Mr Trump, there is little evidence that it — or similar clickbait fabrications — did any such thing. While the most popular fake stories were shared at least as widely as the most popular true articles, that is partly because the fakes were unique while each true article had dozens of imitators or parallels.
A study conducted by economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow found that fake news simply wasn’t as widely shared, seen or remembered as many people think. Close as the 2016 election was, it is unlikely that these stories swung it.
That is the second reason to steer clear of the fake news phrase: in its original form it is aggravating and, occasionally, has constituted incitement to serious violence. But despite a certain degree of moral panic, fake news itself does not pose an existential threat either to democracy or the free press.
What does pose such a threat is a draconian response from governments. Is that likely? The fact-checking organisation FullFact has described the response of some governments, internet and media companies as “frightening over-reactions” — although it adds that the UK government has so far avoided rushed or illiberal measures.
It is all too easy to turn legitimate concerns about false information into a situation where the government decides what can be said and who can say it. We need to be careful that the cure is not worse than the disease — a third reason to avoid panicking about fake news.
The fourth reason is that Mr Trump, with his twisted genius for turning a complex issue into a political cudgel, has deployed the term to demonise regular journalists. Given the number of journalists murdered around the world, including in the US, one might hope for some restraint from the president, but in vain.
Other politicians have also embraced the phrase, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. I worry about a world in which many people believe lies, but I worry far more about one in which many people instinctively refuse to believe the truth.
Here is the final reason to calm down about fake news: it feeds into the tempting but smug assumption that the world is full of idiots. People are sometimes taken in by lies, and some spectacular falsehoods have gained more traction on social media than one might hope.
But if we persuade ourselves that Mr Trump was elected by people who wanted to be on the same side as the Pope, we’re not giving voters enough credit. It is true that most people are disengaged from serious news, and vote with their guts rather than their heads, or being guided by friends rather than a close reading of policy analysis. That does not make them fools.
There is much to concern me in the current political information environment. I worry (partly selfishly) that it is harder than ever to sustain a business that provides serious journalism. I worry that politicians around the world are doing their best to politicise what should be apolitical, to smear independent analysis and demean expertise.
I worry that there is far too little transparency over political advertising in the digital age: we don’t know who is paying for what message to be shown to whom.
The free press — and healthy democratic discourse — faces some existential problems. Fake news ain’t one.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 4 January 2019.
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