Ideasroom

Battling trolls and fake news

The world has seen Donald Trump's media strategy before warns Victoria University media expert Michael S. Daubs.

If you were active on Facebook during the recent US Presidential election, you may have seen one of the more popular memes shared there which quoted a 1998 People magazine interview with Donald Trump in which he said that he would run as a Republican if he were to run for President because Republicans are “the dumbest group of voters in the country.”

One problem, however: Trump never said it.

The meme was just one example of the many of “fake news” stories posted, tweeted, shared, liked and favourited on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter during the election. The revelation that Macedonian teenagers were responsible for crafting many of these false news stories and paid Russian “trolls” were spreading them in pro-Trump comments on social media and news websites raised public awareness of the problem of fake news. As a result, social networks—particularly Facebook—were often chastised for their lackadaisical approach to the dissemination of factually incorrect “news.” Many Hillary Clinton supporters even blamed the spread of fake news—such as a widely-shared story stating she ran a paedophilia sex ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlour—for her loss.

Due to this unending torrent of news (both real and fake), people are less likely to give any story thoughtful consideration since another story will soon demand their attention.

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg denied the site significantly influenced the election results—and a recent study from Stanford and New York Universities would support that claim—the company felt enough pressure to introduce new tools to combat misinformation on the site, namely a feature that allows users to flag stories in their Facebook “newsfeed” as false. This is a positive step; even if fake news had little-to-no effect on the U.S. election, there is ample evidence that fake news has significant real world consequences. The false paedophilia sex ring story, for example, inspired one man to travel to Washington, D.C. to “self-investigate” the claims. During his “investigation”, he discharged an assault rifle inside the restaurant, an act for which he was later arrested; luckily no one in the restaurant was injured.

This example is admittedly anecdotal but demonstrates that fake news can influence beliefs and actions. People’s online habits magnify this influence. For example, users tend to share stories that reinforce their existing political beliefs which not only contributes to a lack of deliberation but, some believe, also intensifies political polarisation, an outcome sometimes referred to as an “echo chamber” effect. Because they resonate more strongly with already-held opinions, fake news stories, which tend toward the shocking or sensational, are shared more frequently than real news stories. As CNN’s Brian Stelter puts it, they “prey on people who want to believe the worst about the opposition.”

The impetus for the current influx of misinformation is arguably financial; fake news tends to have sensationalised, “click-bait” style headlines designed to attract readers (and therefore increase a website’s advertising revenue). To further increase readership, fake news sites also tend to generate a steady stream of content. This is not a phenomenon particular to online news—commercial news organisations including newspapers (e.g., the “yellow press”) and, more recently, 24-hour news stations such as CNN and Fox News, have long relied on producing short, “exciting” stories in order to maintain or increase audiences—but online tools and platforms make the process of distributing these stories faster and more efficient. Due to this unending torrent of news (both real and fake), people are less likely to give any story thoughtful consideration since another story will soon demand their attention.

People in the USA and around the world can fight the spread of fake news and media intimidation by doing their own fact checking. Photo: Dale Cruse

However, now that fake news has been legitimised as an issue, there are also substantial social and political ramifications to consider, namely the appropriation of the term by Trump and his supporters to deflect criticism and delegitimise journalists. Trump, for example, called CNN “fake news” during his first press conference as President, essentially using the phrase as an excuse to refuse to answer a question from the network’s White House correspondent. In doing so Trump transformed “fake news” into the modern “Lügenpresse”, the German word meaning “lying press” used by the Nazis during the Third Reich as a propaganda term to incite hatred against groups such as Jews and communists and discredit Hitler’s critics. Much like “fake news”, the word Lügenpresse was used in a 1914 book published by Reinhold Anton to describe “the lying campaign of our enemies” (German: der Lügenfeldzug unserer Feinde). Only after the Nazis repeatedly used the term did it take the negative connotation. Interestingly, Trump supporters and members of the so-called “alt-right” (really, white supremacists) renewed awareness of the term and its history thanks to a video showing them referring to journalists as Lügenpresse in an effort to demean and attack them during a rally in Cleveland, Ohio in October 2016.

Perhaps because of the connection between the word Lügenpresse and white supremacists, Trump and his staff, including Press Secretary Sean Spicer, have instead begun to accuse critics, the US intelligence community, and even entire news organisations of spreading fake news. In a world in which extreme right-wing politicians are on the rise, including Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, this tactic should be a red flag as it represents a purposeful attempt by the Trump administration to silence their detractors and intimidate journalists in the U.S. If he is successful, these other leaders around the world might mimic his approach, which represents a threat to press freedom and our ability to remain informed, engaged citizens. To combat this, we must become our own fact-checkers (sites like Snopes.com and FactCheck.org can help) and hold elected leaders to account, both when they spread misinformation and rely on the label “fake news” to avoid their obligations to the citizens they represent.

*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom

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