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10 December 2019

F is for Fake News: How we ended up in a post-truth world

The ease with which false information now spreads online has fractured our politics.

By Jasper jackson

“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it’.”

Those were the words of a young man in what is now North Macedonia, describing to BuzzFeed on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election why he was one of many in the small town of Veles pumping out false and deliberately misleading stories.

The term “fake news” entered the lexicon relatively late in the decade, and was initially used mostly to describe the sorts of stories emanating from Veles. Headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement” and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide” were calibrated expertly to appeal to the prejudices of the public and their desire for outlandish and outrageous stories. As a result, they outperformed news from reputable outlets with at the very least some basis in fact.

North Macedonia’s output was just one example of the ways in which disinformation flowed across the internet during the 2010s. A diverse range of groups, organisations and states began producing disinformation campaigns for commercial, ideological and geopolitical reasons. Lies for gain are nothing new, but the sheer volume, and the ease with which they were able to spread and find those willing to believe them, was unprecedented. The real-world impacts of these campaigns have racked up quickly. They have fuelled sectarian murders in India and Myanmar, attempted to sway voters in the UK and US and intensified fears over migration across Europe.  

It is impossible to talk about fake news without examining the tech companies – mainly Google, Twitter and Facebook – that have enabled disinformation to spread so quickly and widely. These information carriers and their offshoots, such as YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp, provided the platforms that host and spread disinformation, the algorithms that turbocharge its spread, and in some cases the business models, that have made lying on the internet a financially appealing pastime.

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And yet, this deluge of false information and our susceptibility to it is, at root, about humanity’s inability to cope with the transition from an information-poor environment to an information-rich one. We are moving from a world where gatekeepers, for both better and worse, controlled the methods of mass communication, to one where anyone, anywhere, can publish their thoughts, claims and narratives and then transmit them to everyone else.

It is this cacophony of competing voices that not only removes the penalties for lying that used to constrain politicians and media organisations to at least a degree, but that also creates incentives to lie almost indiscriminately. The premier example of this new paradigm is, of course, Donald Trump. As of October, the Washington Post had tallied 13,456 false or misleading statements from the 45th president of the US, at an average rate of more than 13 untruths a day. Trump appears pathologically unable to stick to the truth. It’s just America’s luck that this characteristic makes him ideally suited to the modern information environment.

Trump’s co-opting of the term “fake news” to disparage any story, or indeed organisation, that reports something he doesn’t like also gets to a deeper problem we now face. Yes, some people will believe outright lies and distortions designed to deceive, but the more destructive result is to replace rational debate with a back and forth about the motivations behind any attempt to make a point. Creating the impression that everyone is lying fosters apathy in the masses and zealotry in the politically engaged.

For political and technological reasons, the problem looks set to get worse. “Deepfakes”, the fabricated videos that can show anyone doing and saying anything, are a particularly terrifying example of new modes of deception set to undermine our ability to discern what is real. Though overwhelmingly used for pornography rather than political disinformation, their mere existence allows people to dismiss real video evidence. 

Meanwhile, traditional media is becoming both poorer and less influential. The rise of fact-checking organisations and projects is an admirable example of both old and new media trying to tackle the problem, but their efforts rarely match the impact of the lies they challenge. In the meantime, most other segments of the media carry on as usual, unwilling or unable to adapt.

And as we have seen most recently in this year’s UK election, politicians have realised that there is virtually nothing you cannot get away with online. The Conservative Party’s blatant disregard for honesty in its social media campaigns, most famously by rebranding its Twitter account as a fact-checker during the first head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, has sparked widespread outrage. The polls suggest it has done little or no damage to their campaign.

The 2010s have shown us how vulnerable our societies are to fake news and all forms of disinformation, now the 2020s look set to be the first post-truth decade. We are a long way from working out how to cope with that new reality.  

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

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