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Turned upside down: Fake news and the future of the media

By Aidan White

A revolution is taking place in our communication. Across Europe, structures have collapsed because of their dependence on a funding model that no longer works. This has allowed new digital platforms to expand their reach ever further, and to tighten their grip on the information we circulate and are exposed to. Fake news is thriving in this new media environment – presenting a threat to our democratic societies which we underestimate at our peril. We sat down with Aidan White from the Ethical Journalism Network to discuss what fake news means for our society.

Green European Journal: How would you describe the media landscape today, and the main changes which have been occurring?

Aidan White: The landscape has been transformed by technology, essentially by the internet, in a way that allows us as individuals to have more choice and access to faster information from a greater range of sources. But this has come at a high price – that of our privacy and protection, and our access to pluralist and reliable information.

The capacity of social networks to provide rapid information has meant that the role of journalism to inform people about news events has become less important. But what has not changed is the need for reliable and accurate information to help us better understand the impact and consequences of events, and that also provides context – not just reporting a series of facts but explaining why things are happening. While social media can provide us with instantaneous coverage of an incident or disaster, we often miss the filter that journalism provides, for instance to provide news while sheltering others, especially vulnerable people such as children, from views or images that can be damaging. There is no moderation because the tech companies have always said they leave the content generation to users without interfering with it. This has left the door open to unscrupulous communication, such as special interest groups who are only interested in pursuing their own narrow agenda, not the public interest.

In what ways has this transformation been producing real effects on traditional media?  

The internet has profoundly transformed the news and information industry because people can now access for free much of the content they used to obtain from radio, television, printed news and magazines. As a result, the business model of journalism and media has changed. Advertising that used to sustain journalism has been redirected towards the new business models of social networks, based on content that people share with one another – often clickbait, or sensational in nature – things that grab people’s attention. This has drained away resources from traditional news media.

Across Europe, many news outlets have been downsized or closed in recent years due to the collapse of this business model, which in turn has meant there are now fewer trained journalists able to provide the mediation role we saw in the past. Although journalism schools around the world are as full as ever of energetic and enthusiastic people, the reality is there aren’t enough jobs on the media market for them so many will have to seek employment in other sectors. At a time when more people than ever are doing forms of journalistic work – just look at the rise in so-called citizen journalism – membership levels in trade unions and associations of journalists around the world are in decline. And as most of these unions draw their members from employed journalists in the traditional media, this is clear evidence of a collapse in the number of available jobs. Another factor is the increasing number of precarious jobs – freelance jobs or short-term contracts – in journalism. So although there are more opportunities than ever before to do journalistic work, the collapse in revenue and income has meant there is a critical lack of full-time, well-paid and secure jobs.

Investigative journalism has come under huge pressure due to this lack of resources. Take the process behind the Paradise and Panama Papers, for instance – this cost a lot of money, that was largely provided by private foundations. Today, this kind of ‘fourth estate’ journalism has become almost entirely dependent on philanthropy, public money and donors – they are no longer funded by the traditional market. This is generating a crisis for much of the traditional media, and it is a critical moment.

How do you see the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and is this the most worrisome type of ‘unscrupulous communication’ we’re facing at the moment?

Journalism has never been error-free (newspapers frequently make mistakes) but fake news, defined according to the Ethical Journalism Network as the deliberate fabrication of information with intent to deceive, is much more dangerous. Fictitious messages, which exploit the functional logic of social networks, can be put out at any time, sometimes with clear political or commercial intent from unscrupulous groups to exploit this phenomenon for their own interest. Certain sensitive issues can easily be instrumentalised, such as terrorism and migration. Pro-Russian so-called news sites like Sputnik are financed and managed directly by the Kremlin and publish articles with a strategic intent, using a range of devices to make their reports seem more credible. They publish absurd claims. For instance, a year ago it was claimed that Germans are fleeing their homes because of Merkel’s refugee policies. This information is dangerous. It can exploit people’s fears, fuel alienation, and put vulnerable minorities at risk. In this way it can cause real harm, not just by interfering with the democratic system, but also leading to outright violence. This is not just about a group of teenagers in Macedonia trying to make money on the internet but far much pernicious in its intent and effects – and resulting in real political decay.

But is this phenomenon really new? Hasn’t the media always been susceptible to distortion?

It’s crucial to distinguish fake news – which is the deliberate intention to deceive – from political bias in the media. Media have always been subject to bias but this has been easy to identify and to challenge. In addition, the ethical obligations which traditional media are bound by mean that they have to be accountable for their bias or mistakes. When they are challenged it can result in an apology or a correction. But those producing fake news have no such limitations. They provide information outside any framework of ethical or moral values. So here we’re dealing with a new and far more dangerous phenomenon than the political bias of traditional media.

How much of a threat is fake news to our political systems?

Information is obviously vital to democracy – so attempts to undermine the public stream of information necessary to inform citizens also undermine democracy. When it’s no longer clear what’s false and what’s true, people begin to lose confidence in the political process, which is a serious danger to societies built on democratic pluralism – the fabric of democratic societies is tested and weakened.

Fake news has become one of the biggest concerns of our age for politicians and governments in the West because of its capacity to influence election campaigns. We have witnessed the proliferation of fake news websites especially when tensions are heightened – around the time of elections and conflicts, such as the most recent US election, when false declarations were shared as often as serious media reports, or in connection to the situation in Ukraine.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, scoffed at suggestions that fake news on the platform had influenced the election. But after being presented with evidence that it did, he had to rethink that position. This failure led Facebook to change its approach earlier in January, when it announced it would start giving priority to the personal content of its users, rather than newsfeed items. This marks a real shift – and demonstrates that Facebook understands it cannot handle the challenges linked to its publishing of news content with algorithms or robotic tools alone – they simply cannot make the same nuanced ethical judgements. Youtube seems to have reached similar conclusions, having recently announced it would employ thousands of additional editors.

So how can we tackle this problem? What steps should political figures and parties be taking?

First, politicians should apply pressure to social media platforms to take responsibility as publishers for the information that appears on their sites. This can be done through political pressure, legal mechanisms or with voluntary codes of conduct. Second, political centres of power can do more to support, sustain and develop public interest journalism – but without compromising editorial independence. This doesn’t mean just pay-outs by the state, there needs to be a mix of funding from a variety of stakeholders, but the state can start the process by putting in place resources, structures and policies. For example, national foundations can be created which the state contributes to, but also society at large through the private sector or public subscriptions for instance – because the market alone cannot guarantee information pluralism. Third, governments can invest much more heavily in new information and education initiatives to promote media literacy, not just aimed at young people but people at all levels in society.

What about the role of EU and its policy-makers specifically?

The European Commission is currently carrying out an intensive survey of fake news, having recently put together a high-level expert group to examine the threat, in order to obtain recommendations for policy and action. I am sceptical about whether this will yield any genuinely new insights, primarily because the EU is treading uneasily in areas where it is not clear if it has a mandate – matters related to media are generally left to nation-states, so there is a limit to what the EU can do. But it has played a useful role so far in agreeing a code of conduct with Google, Facebook and Twitter to counter hate speech online. Although there are question marks over how effective it has been, at the very least this shows the Commission is developing models national governments can use to hold platforms to account.

How can actors in the media – both the traditional and the new players – play their part?

Internet gatekeepers and new digital media have to take more responsibility – and so far their willingness to do this, as publishers, seems to be in question. Legitimate news media must take more care now to distinguish between news and opinion, and have to be more transparent about the way they operate and the steps they are taking to ensure accuracy of the information they are putting out. Journalists themselves need also to improve their understanding of how the landscape is changing. A recent guidebook to fake news for journalists shows how the internet is polluted with lies and how the process can be traced, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

How can we reclaim media and data from those who have hijacked it, whether for political or commercial purposes?

We have to re-educate ourselves as users to become more sceptical about information we are receiving, showing more critical spirit. Fake news manages to persist and circulate thanks to echo chambers such as those on social media, so we the users are a vehicle and are instrumentalised in this process. All the sectors and institutions in societies need to educate their own communities about the need for civil discourse, pluralism and ethics in communication. This will be a long process requiring much thought and investment – there are no easy answers.

We’re entering a period in which people have to take on much more personal responsibility for the information they consume and produce. The ease and speed of communication today has made us blasé, but the unintended consequences are becoming clearer. Users as well as journalists need to slow down and take time to think – in other words, to pause before posting, to think about the impact of our actions in the public information space. Rather than ‘Move fast and break things’, we should move slowly and build things – and contribute to a more constructive and public-spirited way of thinking.

How critical is it to tackle this problem now – and how confident are you about the prospects for this change?

The emerging crisis in public confidence demonstrates that people are wising up to the fact that they can’t trust online information – there is growing evidence as shown by a recent study that people are getting better at spotting misinformation and propaganda and are becoming more sceptical. But the result seems to be that they are ditching online sources entirely, rather than seeking more reliable ones – and this creates a vacuum that needs to be filled. This may be the first sign of a breakthrough for traditional journalism and media sources – who need to reinvigorate themselves as trusted brands for consumers, in order to fulfil their role of helping people understand the world better and participate in the democratic process.

I suspect this is a problem that is going to get worse rather than better for now, because governments are notoriously slow to change, while technology is developing more rapidly than ever. As a result, public policy is constantly playing catch-up. What worries me is that we might move into a period in which we’ll have more censorship as a result of ill-thought-out government responses to fake news rather than long-term solutions, and new laws may restrict our freedom rather than enhancing it, unless we can create a new consensus.

Turned upside down: Fake news and the future of the media