13th November 2017
By Tom Law

Fake News: How the Business of the Digital Age Threatens Democracy

As the European Union launches a new strategy in the face of the fake news crisis Aidan White in Brussels identifies the tough question facing policymakers — how to regulate the global technology giants without damaging free speech.

Aidan White

Ethics in the News - Fact in the post truth era

Although for a year it has been the major talking point in media and politics, the debate over fake news is confused by misunderstanding about the phenomenon, its origins and why it poses a threat, not just to journalism but to democracy and political pluralism.

There is a threat to the public information space in the current crisis of falsehoods and misinformation, but it is not rooted journalism or in the mistakes of slip-shod and sometimes incompetent reporters.

Nevertheless, the damage done to public trust and confidence by the deliberate manufacture, circulation and marketing of false information is palpable.

When BBC Future Now interviewed a panel of 50 experts in March 2017 about the “grand challenges we face in the 21st century” many named the breakdown of trusted information sources as a primary threat.

“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

And this new environment is undermining public confidence. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center towards the end of last year, for instance, found that 64% of American adults said made-up news stories were causing confusion about current issues and events.

It is an accepted fact that misinformation has always been with us, but the difference today is how we get our information. The internet makes it possible now for many voices to be heard, many of that that could not find a way through the filtering of news and information by journalists and others in an earlier age.

To better understand the phenomenon of fake news, the Ethical Journalism Network defines it as follows:

“The deliberate fabrication of information with the intention to deceive and to mislead others into believing falsehoods or to doubt verifiable facts.”

This definition lays stress on the deliberate nature of the process and the intention of the information provider. It sets a standard for defining propaganda in politics; misinformation in advertising; distortion, exaggeration, malice and self-serving communications in any form of public discourse.

Journalism, which is a stream of public information gathered and disseminated in a framework of values, has an ethical imperative to be fact-based.

Reputable editors are the first to admit that journalism is a rough and ready profession and people in the business are increasingly aware of the responsibility to avoid errors of fact and to own up to mistakes. This has become more challenging in the age of social networks, but the proliferation of fact-checking services and “clarification and correction” columns in news feeds and printed publications demonstrates that accuracy and reliability remain central to the cause of building trust in journalism.

But there is no denying that false information is a disruptive force in modern communications. And there is also no doubt that it poses a threat to democracy as revealed by the role played by false narratives in last year’s United States Presidential election and the British referendum on European Union membership.

A major part of the problem lies in the deeply flawed nature of the modern culture of communications and more precisely in the business models of major technology and advertising companies.

Over the past two decades social media and new forms of digital communications have transformed the way we buy and sell; how we work and live our lives; and, not least, how we discuss and practice our politics.

Driving this change is the exploitation of technology managed and controlled by a handful of corporations who have overwhelmed the ever-expanding internet. Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have become immensely rich and enormously powerful by harvesting unprecedented amounts of personal data from internet users and selling it on as products and services to advertisers on a scale never seen before.

These corporate behemoths enjoy staggering economic growth on the back of exploitation of databases of human activity. By using software that maps our lives they anticipate our every wish and preference – they tell us what we want to buy and where we can buy it; they tell us what news we should see, what books we should be reading, and what the world thinks about us and what is our place in it.

Most people find this new environment stimulating and helpful, but few of us fully understand the threats and risks to democracy when this power is not used constructively or responsibly.

Problems arise when information circulates in a value-free environment which makes no distinction between high-quality sources such as professional journalism and the malicious lies of people and groups generating hate speech or those who circulate and stream abusive, disturbing and troubling images of brutal inhumanity.

Using sophisticated algorithms, bots and turbo-charged distribution systems and fed by limitless databanks providing personal access to millions of subscribers, this business model thrives on “viral information” that can deliver enough clicks to trigger digital advertising. It matters not whether information is true or honest or whether it has public purpose; what counts is that it is provocative and stimulating enough to attract attention.

This model encourages a new entrepreneurial spirit, but not one that favours responsible communications. No-one should be surprised, for instance, that tech-savvy teenagers with limited job prospects in Macedonia used Facebook’s platform to circulate fake news stories at the time of the United States election. It was, after all, a perfect business opportunity.

The use of algorithms and robotic techniques to manage and distribute information regularly gets the big tech companies into hot water, even when they are trying to do the right thing. Last year’s censorship by Facebook of an iconic Vietnam War era photograph – taken down by the company’s robots because of its depiction of child nudity – is a case in point.

Digital robots are useful but they can’t be encoded with ethical and moral values. Clearly, the best people to handle ethical questions regarding online content are sentient human beings, however the digital business model eschews any significant role for journalists and editors to do this work.

At the same time journalists and others in the news business have to deal with the catastrophic consequences of the economic transformation of the media market. The technology companies have siphoned off the income that has hitherto financed public interest journalism in news media. This in turn has led to a steady decline in media scrutiny of economic and political centres of power.

Across Europe media struggle to find economic incentives to maintain journalism and to provide reliable streams of information to people about the events that shape their lives and to deliver a range of opinions that reflect both mainstream and minority voices. Unless people have access to such information democratic pluralism may be weakened beyond repair.

The inventor of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has warned of the consequences. He says that the sophisticated techniques used to promote online political advertising may be unethical in the way they target people and the way they direct voters to fake news sites, particularly at election time.

He used the 28th anniversary of the worldwide web earlier this year to speak out over the threat to democracy that arises when most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms which draw upon rich pools of personal data for political campaigning.

In an open letter (on March 12) he wrote:

“One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor,” he wrote. “And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance…. Is that democratic?”

It’s a question worth asking at every level of politics.

The development of business models driven by algorithms which put clicks before content has created a new culture of communications in which truth and honesty is obscured by fake news, bigotry and malicious lies; and it legitimises a political space that encourages ignorance, uncertainty and fear in the minds of voters. These realities raise bigger questions about fake news that not only concern the future of journalism but also the nature of democracy itself.

Aidan White is the Director of the Ethical Journalism Network. For more on this subject read the EJN’s Ethics in the News report. 

EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the post-truth era