What can be done to counter fake news?
The fake news phenomenon has been at the epicentre of the socio-political debate about communication on the internet since the 2016 US presidential elections, if not before. But what exactly is fake news? What is its impact? What makes it different in the era of internetbased news communication? And, most importantly: what can be done to counter it?
Although research on this topic is still in its infancy, we can already state that fake news is contributing to a qualitative change in the structure and culture of social discourse: it can have a limited, but measurable impact on how citizens form their opinions. Fake news differs from classical false newspaper stories, the “canards” of the analogue age, in that it is deployed intentionally to achieve certain aims. Thanks to online social networks, it achieves massive reach while circumventing professional journalists who risk damaging their reputations if they spread it too often. Social media have democratised the way news is distributed, but have at the same time made it easy for anyone to spread false reports, too. Media impact studies have shown that among people who are exposed to fake news, those most likely to be affected are users whose worldview aligns with the news item or report. In other words, fake news serves mainly to reinforce existing opinions. Even when users adopt a critical attitude towards a news report, they may still accept its content as a result of certain cognitive effects, and despite assessing the information as being unreliable.
Freedom of expression needs to be protected both from being manipulated through false digital news and disinformation campaigns, but also from interference by governments, businesses or other societal actors. The authors’ recommendations are clear: we have to focus on citizens’ individual responsibility, media skills and critical thinking ability.
There are no simple answers for dealing with fake news. This paper argues that deleting it from social networks is no quick fix. On the contrary: for populists, deletions lend support to conspiracy theories and add fuel to their criticism of the elites. It is also likely that susceptible users will move to less accessible parts of the internet, further exacerbating social divisions. The German Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, NetzDG) is therefore the wrong approach. Even labelling incorrect stories as “fake” can have unintended consequences: on the one hand, such alerts, when posted on newsfeeds, are quickly forgotten, while the actual information is retained in the user’s memory. On the other hand, users may perceive general alerts on their newsfeeds as unwarranted interference in their autonomous decision making and dismiss them with a feeling of annoyance. This is why it is so important to deploy tools that take into account the user’s individual responsibility. Freedom of information and expression are fundamental freedoms that are indispensable in democratic societies. Whatever measures are devised have to take this important fact into consideration, no matter whether they are statedirected or developed by the social networks themselves.
This paper therefore recommends that the following measures be introduced:
- Teach media literacy both at school and outside of school to prevent harmful media influences and to promote a critical attitude to media consumption.
- Display a warning notice to users before they share fake news. This measure appeals to the user’s individual responsibility and can therefore be effective.
- Promote and enhance respectful social dialogue to prevent anti- and pro-elite polarisation.
- Support research on media consumption behaviour, as well as on the impact of fake news, to allow for more comprehensive risk assessments and more effective education. Provide platforms to facilitate information exchange between domestic and international researchers.