Charting a course for liberalism in the information age

Jul 20, 2018

The Problem with “Fake News”

Anxiety about fake news has long dogged open publishing environs, while the costs of gatekeeping often go unnoticed. 

 

History of Fake News

On August 13th, 1678, King Charles II was informed of an elaborate Catholic conspiracy to take his life. A manuscript, discovered just a few days prior, named nearly 100 English Jesuits as part of a plot to reinstate Catholic power in Protestant England. The King found the whole thing absurd, and wanted it kept quiet to avoid mass panic. Word, however, got out, prompting an investigation that led the magistrate to the fervently anti-Catholic Titus Oates.

Oates’s impeccable memory, confidence, and intelligence persuaded the King that the plot was real. Oates claimed to have infiltrated secret Catholic meetings and learned of their plans. He made numerous allegations, and knew about the personal lives and positions of various influential Catholics. Fury gripped the English public.

Drastic anti-Catholic measures were taken to protect the King’s life. The Exclusion Bill excluded the King’s Roman Catholic brother, John, from the line of succession. The Jesuits were persecuted, with nine executed and another twelve dying in prison.

The most shocking feature of the entire “Popish Plot” was that it was totally fictitious. Titus Oates had fabricated the entire manuscript along with a supposedly insane clergyman, Israel Tonge, intending to spur hysteria that would do lasting damage to English Catholicism.

The King survived till 1685, with no successful attempts on his life by Catholics. However, it was not until 1829 that the policies against Catholics were relaxed with the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

Fake stories have garnered widespread attention throughout history, though only a few were as impactful as the Popish Plot. Similar libelous persecutions of Jews occurred across Europe in the late 19th Century in the Dreyfus, Beilis, and Hilsner affairs; all fake, and all successful in stoking hysterical public anger.

Some instances of fake news, such as the press’s popularization of bat-men on the moon, can be innocuous, but others have held dire implications for whole nations. The sensationalist “Yellow Journalism” pioneered by Pulitzer and Hearst has often been cited as a cause of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Hearst’s papers blamed the Spanish for sinking the Maine, an American warship, during a Cuban uprising, despite scant evidence, in order to drum up public support for his hawkish outlook.

The Role of Media Technology

As the modern phenomenon of fake news has caught public attention, spurring calls for new regulation, there are useful lessons to be learned from the history of epistemic uncertainty in public discourse. The historical presence of fake news indicates that this is not a new challenge, and the diminution of the issue throughout the 20th century grants further insight into the problem’s internet borne reemergence.

In the case of the Popish Plot the truth was eventually discovered, though only after much damage had been done. Means of transmitting the written word were limited, slowing the process of refuting error. The traditional business model of mass media rewarded sensationalism, making it more profitable to spread unverified claims and publish retractions later. These incentives have been well-understood throughout history, and enabled powerful interests to manipulate public opinion.

Over time, however, the cost of information transmission fell drastically, increasing the quality of reporting. Prior to the widespread deployment of the telegraph, foreign correspondence was based on independent letter writers whose commentary was sent with cargo to the reporting nation. Fact checking was difficult under these circumstances, but as demand for news increased, more resources were invested in rigorous correspondence. This demand driven shift began with the Chicago Daily News, which became the gold standard for foreign reporting by the early 1920s. The rise of reporting quality coincided with advances in air travel, as commercial airlines were established following the First World War. These changes drastically improved the ability for misinformation to be corrected rapidly, rather than the weeks, or sometimes months, of delay that it took for news to travel by ship.

As new players entered into the newspaper market, changes in business models affected reporting as well. An increasing number of players pushed down the value of advertising dollars for each paper as competition for circulation intensified. Newspapers began to shift their focus to retention of high valued customers through the adoption of subscription sales. This reduced competition for attention, shifting the market to competition in quality. News like the Popish Plot would be less likely to thrive in an environment in which profit is based on rigor rather than shock.

Beyond the changes in print came a series of advances in media technology throughout the 20th Century. Guglielmo Marconi patented what would soon become the first commercially successful radio device in 1896, and by 1919 human speech was clearly transmitted. Throughout the 1920s, developments in broadcasting marked a new era in media communications, changing how the public received information. Only be a few decades later the widespread adoption of television sets spurred yet another media revolution.

Network television grew tremendously in the 1950s, becoming the new voice of American news. Following the popularity of Edward R. Murrow’s “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy”, network television expanded the length of newscasts to 30-minutes, and invested heavily in finding broadcast journalists who were seen as trustworthy. While short news reports were common before, the television news format allowed a small few to speak to millions in an unprecedented manner. The novelty of the format, along with high natural barriers to market entry, created an environment in which a handful of stations commanded the attention of the entire American audience, further reducing competition driven sensationalism.

The Return of Fake News

While many broadcast innovations of the 20th Century seemed to limit the impact of fake news, the information technology boom that began in the 1970s changed the dynamics of its production. Declining computer hardware costs enabled widespread access to media production, and the commercial internet allowed for near instantaneous transmission of ideas.

Cheaply available software enabled the creation of false content. Tools such as Photoshop provided quick, high-quality image doctoring, making it difficult to distinguish between real and fake photographs. While the creation of false images had been a common phenomenon since the dawn of photography, it was given new prominence in the internet-era, as speed became an important factor in narrative creation.

The combination of lower production costs and rapid content dissemination led to an explosion in the number of information sources. Setting up a website was far cheaper than establishing a television station, driving a profusion of online news. The early internet was an anarchic environment, hosted on a novel, effectively decentralized infrastructure which large corporations had yet to fully master. Content production had been democratized, but it was often hard to distinguish between high and low-quality content. This tension is evidenced by the popularity of the phrase “don’t believe everything you read on the internet”, often humorously attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The doubt prevalent in online interaction is further exampled in the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog”.

Internet freedom also changed the business model of publishing to be more reminiscent of 19th Century print media. The costs of scaling had long insulated large networks and national newspapers from the sort of intense competition enabled by the internet. National networks took view attention for granted. As the number of news sources increased, each customer’s attention became scarcer, and therefore, more valuable. Online social media sites operate as attention maximizers, showing people exactly what they want to see, rather than curating content for quality. In such an environment, emotionally charged, attention grabbing content is likely to have greater throughput than dry, analytical works.

While changes to the information economy have been ongoing, the current concern over fake news stems from the 2016 US Presidential Election. Concerns that Russian propagandists influenced the election by spreading disinformation on social media, as well as the rising popularity of alternative news sites such as Breitbart, Daily Kos, InfoWars, and the Huffington Post, drove concerns about fake news’s corrosive impact on democracy.

The argument contends that as more people rely upon social media for news, the line between what is true and not becomes blurred. Articles that play to a reader’s sensibilities will be algorithmically selected and over-served, deceiving them into taking their claims as fact. Malicious actors, such as Russian agents aiming to elect Donald Trump, can and will take advantage of these advertising algorithms to mislead and influence the public. The possibility of Popish Plots influencing discourse, it is claimed, has become practicable once again.

The Scope of the Problem

Economic Historian Niall Ferguson has likened the influence of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to that Hearst at the time of the Spanish-American War. Other commentators have condemned what they consider to be social media monopolies as political threats, as they reduce the number of information channels, making people more susceptible to fake news. Even though the internet provides a wellspring of free information, some have argued that it has actually made us dumber, and less able to critically assess what we see.

There is little evidence that fake news had any measurable impact on the outcome of the 2016 election. If anything, it seems that the Russians benefitted more from the hysteria attending their efforts than any products of the efforts themselves. Whether or not the articles churned out by Russian troll factories are true, it is better to address their content, rather than decry them as fake news. Dismissing speech as fake, rather than engaging with it, provides an easy rhetorical escape from discomfiting views. The acceptability of dismissal sows partisan discord, which harms public debate.

Many claims made about Facebook and its’ influence are hyperbolic. The idea that Zuckerberg has the power of Hearst is to discount the ongoing conversation concerning his influence. Facebook does not exert editorial authority over content on its site as Hearst did with his newspapers. In addition, internet users express general skepticism of what they see online, and rarely trust a single source for everything. While more people probably get some news off Facebook than they did through Hearst Media at its peak, its’ influence on their thought is weaker. A 2017 Pew Research poll found that only 20% of US adults regularly receive news from social media. Out of the 67% who receive any news from social media, 37% supplement with Local TV, 28% with Cable TV, and 33% with online newspapers. These are hardly results that suggest susceptibility to monopolistic influence.

To illustrate this point, let us imagine that Facebook began actively curating its site to support a war with Spain. It algorithmically favors information that makes the case for war, including fabricated Spanish antagonism, and demotes any and all information that shows otherwise. Is it likely that the populace has become so pacified as to believe everything they see, and become pawns to the influence of Facebook’s owners? Not in the slightest. Unlike broadsheets or television news, social media sites do not create a general consensus, as they host microtargeted content. Disparate users, finding similar content universally thrust upon them, would discover this aggressive curation quite quickly. This discovery would likely result in fierce backlash against Facebook executives.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are not simply competing with traditional news sources, they rely on them for revenue. If Facebook abused its content creators, they might refrain from publishing on the site, which would in turn reduce its credibility. While it is often claimed that social media has accelerated the decline of traditional media, this assertion is not borne out by the data. Traditional media was in decline well before  the creation of outlets like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. If anything, platforms have been responsible for halting the demise of legacy content creators. Countless people access New York Times articles through Facebook every day, far more than accessed them directly through their site before Facebook rose to prominence.

Online companies do not have the luxury of maintaining sleepy monopolies, or abusing their market position. On the contrary, they have a large financial incentive to combat fake news as best as possible, even overcompensating on occasion. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all taken initiatives to counter the spread of fake news on their sites, while still allowing users wide latitude to create, post, and consume the content they most enjoy.

This suggests that the tendency of people to believe fake news is not so much a technological issue as a social one. While the internet age decreased the cost of producing fake news, digital media itself did not make it any more believable. The degradation of trust in traditional media—something that began in the 1990s—indicates that fixes targeted at content, rather than the underlying concerns that bring it to the fore, will have little positive impact.

The Cost of Reprieve

Understanding the pre-internet media landscape helps to contextualize why fake news has seemed like such a new phenomenon. For around 40 years television was the dominant form of media. Families would sit around for hours to consume standard sitcoms from I Love Lucy to Two and a Half Men — that remained almost identical in form no matter what year they were broadcast— and to remain informed about current affairs. From the inception of network television in the late-1940s to the rise of standalone news stations in the 1980s, the Big Three (NBC, CBS, and ABC), dominated American homes, and American minds.

Elsewhere in the world, television content was strictly monitored to maintain moral standards. This severely restricted the number of accessible channels. In the UK, where the publicly funded BBC was the sole body responsible for broadcast television for decades, the reaction against the introduction of ITV, the first independent station, was fierce. The Labour Party continued to oppose commercial television into the Thatcher administration, when Channel 4, an ad-funded public-service broadcaster, was launched in 1982. 

The American news scene evolved in 1980 with the introduction of CNN, but it was only in 1996, with the inception of MSNBC and Fox News, that news channels began to become more explicitly partisan.

The notion that the news of the television era was more truthful than today’s internet media is deeply flawed. By limiting the channels through which information could be accessed, the bounds of political discourse were informed by the narrow interests of those who commissioned television shows. Many fringe groups were permanently excluded from the national conversation. It might be argued that excluding those who held these fringe views brought a valuable cohesion to society, but there were unintended consequences to this form of censorship.

Take one of the most famous songs of the Black Power Movement, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron, with lines such as “There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock News/ and no pictures of hairy armed women Liberationists and/ Jackie Onassis blowing her nose”. The song chastises the media structure of the 1960’s, which is held responsible for pacifying the American public in the face of brutal systemic racism. In doing so, it makes clear that discussion of effective, ameliorative political action had been foreclosed by media centralization.

Contrary to its aims, the deplatforming of radicals only lent credence to their claims. It fed delegitimizing narratives of a democracy managed by shadowy elites, and on both left and right, was used to justify violent action. Twentieth Century media sorted Americans into a majority who trusted the content they were shown, and a minority who believed none of it.

Today, however, the ability of a single source to control the information available to an entire demographic is much weaker. Legacy media conglomerates, such as News Corp, Viacom, or Comcast, that traditionally acted as gatekeepers of information, compete for clicks and views with upstart magazines, YouTube clips, tweets, LiveLeak footage, and blogs. The internet has driven an increase not only in the volume of content, but its velocity and variety. Compared to twitter, televised news summaries seem glacially slow. News curation, rather than creation, has become costly.

Acknowledging this change illustrates the difficulty of attempting to return to the dynamics of the television age. One of the reasons fringe movements, whose narratives were empowered by censorship, never grew strong enough to effectively challenge mainstream opinion was not their lack of resources, but the trust people had in the system of information gatekeepers. Broad social consensus endorsed the bounds of acceptable debate, and the functioning of the wider institutions of society, upon which the news industry relied.

The contemporary spread of fake news concerns not only the ability to produce content, but the lack of trust that now permeates society. The post-9/11 and post-financial crisis world does not trust its institutions as much as it did in the 1980s. The content produced by sites like InfoWars, known for their conspiracist reporting, follow an anti-elite narrative that attacks not only the political establishment, but once reputable media corporations.

Regulation and Reputation

To regulate social media sites in way that controls user content would undeniably generate  backlash. There is no authoritative means of identifying what news should be printed and what should not. Only after something has been said and publicized can it be identified as true or false. Preventing publication is, in turn, a form of censorship known as prior restraint, that the US Constitution severely restricts.

Less drastic than banning what is deemed to be fake news are incentive-based regulations, such as the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for user generated content. This legislative shift would render companies liable for malicious or libelous content posted on their sites, like traditional publishers. The chilling effect of this change would limit far more speech online than just fake news, as a fearful private regulator always is more cautious than a public regulator.

Given the tremendous volume of speech produced by its users, despite their best efforts, it is impossible for Facebook to adequately monitor everything posted on its site. If Facebook were held liable for content it could not adequately monitor, it might maintain a presumption of guilt on the part of the user, censoring any politically charged or potentially offensive content, fearful of the legal action likely to accompany any mistakes.

Understanding the complexity of regulating online speech, Vox’s Matt Yglesias has called for Facebook to simply be shut down, given the danger to democracy the site apparently poses. This is an absurd remedy, one that is far worse than the purported disease.

Hysteria over the impact of fake news has led people to neglect the immense tangible benefits brought by social media. Twitter and Facebook may allow people to post lies online, but they have also facilitated far greater interconnectedness than ever previously thought possible. Social media has facilitated new political opportunities, such as the Arab Spring, as earlier centralized information technologies were easily controlled by tyrannical governments. It has allowed people to remain in contact with friends abroad, and expand their horizons by lowering the cost of information gathering.

Contrary to popular opinion, social media has also contributed to the depolarization of political views. Psychologically, and perhaps counterintuitively, users are less likely to spend time on a site that only shows them content they like, but more likely to remain engaged if they are angered by what they see. Twitter feuds drive engagement more fervently than echo chambers. While the overall effect on people’s beliefs is mild, constant exposure to disagreeable views makes it easier to appreciate sources of disagreement.

While it is true that fake news stories were the most shared individual articles of the 2016 election season, this statistic says little about the impact of fake news. People’s worldviews are rarely shaped by single articles. Instead they tend to share articles that reinforce their preexisting beliefs. A viral fake news article represents a small share of each individual’s news consumption, but its visceral nature increases the likelihood that each reader will pass it on to others.

In order to avoid being fooled by fake news, people have begun to look for proxies to judge the reliability of what they read online. Philosopher Gloria Origgi has referred to this shift as the dawn of the Reputation Age, which has supplanted the Information Age as the sheer volume of information available has become too great to process.

Trust is the most important aspect of Origgi’s Reputation Age. As social trust has eroded, the assumption that information is reliable has also disappeared. She argues that this is being countered by organizations and individuals developing trust signals to engage forthrightly with one another. Just as brand marketing allows consumers to trust the quality of a product or a service, a messenger’s reputation allows listeners to determine the level of trust thye should place in the information he delivers. Individuals do not form beliefs after evaluating all relevant information, but by evaluating the sources of that information, and the trustworthiness of others who hold those beliefs. These networks of reputation form the foundations of collective intelligence.

As individuals become more accustomed to the social implications of the internet, they will develop personal reputational devices. Social media sites are attempting to facilitate their creation by flagging trusted sources and verifying the accounts of frequently impersonated users. These shifts provide for greater trust in the institutions governing information, while retaining the diversity of sources inherent to the internet.

Oates’ hoax was found out in 1681. The Catholic King James II ascended to the throne in 1685, despite all the anger brewed just a few years prior. Things move faster now than they did then, but the same logic applies, and the truth always shines through.