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Hanover - Uncertain Times Require Uncommon Sense

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7 Sep 2017

“Dark” and “cancerous,” decried British journalist Jon Snow of the seemingly unstoppable tide of fake news on social platforms.

Speaking at the annual James MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival the veteran news anchor went on to suggest this tide is a “threat to democracy” (before plugging Channel 4’s newly launched FactCheck platform).

But can we really attribute the rise of fake news to a single source?

One man who may disagree with this vilification is Paul Horner, the 38-year-old at the helm of a fake news empire who believes he turned the U.S. election in favour of Donald Trump.

Indeed, many commentators have linked fake news to not only the Presidential election, but to Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton (Silverman 2016).  A few months back Forbes analysed Google Trends data showing the expression “fake news” only emerged sometime in October last year.

It wasn’t until Trump’s first news conference as President-elect during which he slammed Buzzfeed and CNN yelping “fake news!”, that the phrase sprang into the modern lexicon.

There have been widespread calls from business leaders and politicians to end this so-called viral outbreak.

Yet, to unravel this “phenomenon”, we need to read it not at the heady speed of social media, but in the context of reflective new research and analysis.

Firstly, fake news is not new. Many have pointed out that campaigns of disinformation were used in ancient times. Julius Caesar’s supporter Octavian used short slogans on coins to discredit Marc Antony, later taking the name Augustus. Roll forward to mass propaganda in the First and Second World Wars and practically every media outlet was using blatant bias to contribute to the war effort.

Secondly, what motivates today’s spread of fake news? Is it purpose or profit? The answer is both. As the lead writer of the National Report, Horner’s fabricated stories, such as the alleged arrest of famous street artists Banksy served as “click bait”, using news-like headlines to trick unsuspecting (or otherwise) consumers.

The spread of disinformation for political gain is not a modern concept, but one that is very much in favour today. An investigation by Buzzfeed revealed that more than 100 sites posting fake news were run by teenagers in Macedonia, while a US company called Disinfomedia owns many fake news sites. The virus, it seems, can be traced to a relatively small number of propagators with a shared political or ideological purpose.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the consideration of consumer choice. A recent research paper by economic professors Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, of New York University and Stanford University, respectively, makes the unnerving point that today’s consumer of online news faces a trade-off.

As the global media lambasts the infringement of fake news on their terrain, so fake news is not read in isolation. When it comes to the political brain, the consumer is already biased. Left-leaning consumers ultimately want their candidate to perform better than a right-leaning competitor and vice versa.

The trade-off is thus: consumers have a moral incentive to source information from unbiased news. But also an incentive to choose news outlets, whether fake or real, to support their favoured outcome.

Perhaps fake news is more of a threat to the democracy of thought, to the body politic. The power of choice and intentional filtering of what we read lies in the hands of the consumer of news, not the generator.