‘Fake news’ generally refers to disinformation and hoaxes published on websites for political purposes. Satire and ‘spoof news’ stories can be difficult to distinguish from, and have in fact been confused with, fake news. But where satire seeks to ridicule and thereby undermine an accepted dogma or a political opponent’s argument by holding up a mirror to it, fake news sets out maliciously to undermine public confidence. Satire is a defender of democracy and antidote to autocracy. Fake news is the autocrat’s friend.
While the deliberate distribution of misinformation about one’s political opponents is nothing new in politics, the term ‘fake news’ was made famous by Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential election. So quickly has it established itself in the political sphere that Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary voted it 2016’s word of the year. President Trump used ‘fake news’ as a term to disparage most of the mainstream media, however a Stanford University study found that while fake news stories about the Presidential elections were shared close to 40 million times, the vast majority targeted his political opponents.
Although there is some debate about the electoral impact of fake news as a campaign strategy, the study notes that,
“when combined with the distributive power of social media, fake news is a potential game-changer in terms of the degree of political polarization. This has been demonstrated internationally.”
The distribution of fake news to manipulate democratic outcomes and public policy is a growing concern globally. There are many clear examples from around the world of activist organizations, ideologically motivated media outlets, foreign governments and even small and micro business producing fake news. For example, so common is the misinformation about refugees seeking asylum in Germany, that Karolin Schwarz, an ethnologist of African studies has created HOAXmap to map defamatory hoaxes about refugees as they are perpetuated and then refuted in the media.
In other regions, the German government is investigating the recent proliferation of fake news articles; the concern being that the Kremlin may be trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming elections. There are similar concerns in France, with the leading Presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron, being targeted by Russian media and internet attacks.
Fake news has clearly taken hold as a campaign strategy at both an international and national level. But fake news is also being used at a local or state level, with significant local impact. A Colorado State Representative was so convinced by a fake news story that claimed that people were using food stamps to buy marijuana (which is legal in Colorado) that she introduced a legislation banning the practice. In Lafayette, LA, a candidate in the Congressional elections was accused of releasing derogatory fake news about his opponent on the letterhead of the local newspaper. Equally, one Louisiana school board was forced to publish a statement noting that it had no intention of arming its students after a fake news article circulated claiming that students at DeQuincy schools were given guns and told to take gun safety training.
It’s clear, then, that while fake news is at its most pervasive and dangerous at a national and international level, it’s lessons and techniques can be applied maliciously or mischievously at a more local scale.
While interference in the political process would seem to be the obvious motivation for creating fake news, it isn’t that simple. Some individuals and groups clearly create and distribute fake news in order to spread digital propaganda and influence political discourse and electoral outcomes. Others do it for purely financial reasons – fake news can generate a lot of web traffic and therefore a lot of digital advertising revenue. While still others do it out of mischief, or to undermine political or religious dogma, or simply for the challenge of seeing if their story can go viral.
Jestin Coler, a producer of fake news, noted that he established his business to infiltrate the echo chamber of the alt-right in the US by publishing fake news stories, seeing if they took hold in the mainstream, and then denouncing them publicly and loudly. He now runs a very profitable business based on traffic to his fake and satirical news sites. Coler’s theory is that fake news takes hold when it fits into existing right-wing conspiracies, and notes that he has tried producing fake ‘liberal’ news but they have never taken the bait. Others argue against this hypothesis, noting that fake news channeling the prejudices of ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ is on the rise particularly since Trump took office.
So fake news is not a left-right issue. It is a new, and insidious campaigning strategy that can be applied by anyone.
The fact that the financial gain and influence of national and even international politics seem to be such important motivating factors is good news for anyone dealing with more localized issues. However, as the fake news methods become better known and more widespread, there is every possibility that activists will apply them to local issues. The bad news is that things are only going to get worse, according to Coler. Fake articles are going to become increasingly nuanced and difficult to identify, fake news websites increasingly sophisticated and localized, and social distribution increasingly aggressive.