Fake news is a media ecology problem

In 2016, some surprising facts have changed both American and British history, as far as political leaderships are concerned. These changes have been linked to the spreading of fake news. The idea may be overrated, but the growing discussion about fake news online is important in order to define a strategy for making the media great again.
Fake news is a media ecology problem

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and Trust

Digital media have changed the cultural dynamics in ways that humans are still struggling to understand. The ways citizens in western democracies get the news have dramatically changed: since the year 2000, reading the news in print is a far less used solution while the use of digital platforms for searching and sharing the news has dramatically grown. Consequences are controversial: the number of active citizens that participate to the making of the news has grown while professional fact-checking and reporting struggle to survive and desperately look for new business models. The technology for publishing became digital while the time used by the audience to get to the media stayed analog. The main economic consequence has been the end of scarcity of space for publication and the growing importance of scarcity of time and attention. Which means that power in the media market shifted from the publishers’ hands to the audience’ control. Traditional authorities for discerning what was fit for publication were less important, while algorithms generated for managing attention to be sold in the advertising market became more and more strategic. In this context, two somehow surprising results of a British referendum and of an American presidential election were linked to the spreading of fake news online. While the importance of the internet as a central technology for the distribution of the news was already a theme for discussion, this “post-truth” society problem have generated some very hot debates: some experts have talked about a possible crisis in the very meaning of democracy because of fake news; some others have denied the role of this phenomenon calling it overrated.

The deniers have a clear advantage in saying that fake news have always existed. The number of examples is huge and humbling for the print newspaper business. Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, of New York University and Stanford University, in their paper called “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election” (published in Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 31, Number 2—Spring 2017—Pages 211–236) show that there is no evidence that fake news have really been pivotal in changing the results of the American presidential election, even though they were spread in huge numbers and they were mostly favorable to Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. We don’t know how many voters have changed their minds after having read that the pope was endorsing Trump, which was not true, for example. But this doesn’t diminish the importance of the debate, because it has popularized some important discoveries about how the internet is shaping the way news are distributed and read in western democracies.

After Eli Pariser’s book titled “The Filter Bubble” we know that platforms help users dealing with the information overload by using some easy algorithms, such as “if you liked this in the past, you will like something similar in the future”. This leads most platform users to only get news that confirm their preferences. And Walter Quattrociocchi, researcher at IMT in Lucca, has demonstrated that this has important consequences in the clustering of people in echo-chambers in which they live in a sort of continuous confirmation bias. In these echo-chambers people usually share only news that agree with the beliefs characterizing that particular echo-chamber: when presented with facts that don’t agree with those beliefs, people in those echo-chambers tend to ignore or refuse that kind of facts. On the contrary, if a fake piece of news arrives in an echo-chamber and if it agrees with local beliefs it can be accepted and spread.

Dynamics in this social media environment are not favorable to fact-checking but to believing what people likes. We can doubt of the importance of a single piece of fake news in a particular political event, but we can clearly see that if the public sphere is substituted by the filter bubble, evidence bases knowledge becomes a belief with the same legitimacy of any other belief. Violence, ignorance and dogma, in a context such as this one, are more likely to prevail.

What can be done about this? Some platforms - such as Facebook and Google - have started to deal with the problem by developing new algorithms that filter some clearly fake news, by partnering with third parties that monitor fake news, and by hiring people to check some of the news that get more warnings by users. But it will be really hard for any number of people to check the posts that are written by some two billion users. Others think that the state needs to get into the debate and create laws to fight the fake news spreading phenomenon: this could be really hard to implement but surely very dangerous for the freedom of expression. 

We should start developing a new awareness about the digital media relationship with the truth. We need a new approach. We can develop an approach that makes the most of the mcluhanian notion of the media as an environment: we could start seeing the media as a complex system similar to an ecosystem. With this approach we can define the problem in terms of media ecology. What does it mean? It essentially means that we cannot solve the problem with a linear, limited solution, one that treats fake news as an externality of the industrial process that has been developed online for gathering attention to be sold in the advertising market which are unsustainable in terms of quality of information: we need to solve the problem by favoring the development of sustainable, diverse, interoperable new platforms for gathering, distributing, evaluating and understanding the news. Tom Malone, founder of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Mit, suggests that a group developing its decision making with the help of connected computers is likely to be more intelligent than the most intelligent member of the group if members are culturally diverse, if they are able to discuss and listen to each other, if there is gender equilibrium. What is needed is something new that helps curiosity, methodology and social equilibrium. It is not - and it cannot be - a tentative return to what was before the internet. It is the design of a new breed of platforms that are designed to be culturally sustainable. By the way, this could be the next big thing online.

ps. Full disclosure: the graffiti that you see in the photo up here (which translated means "the newspaper is not its paper") is of course a meaningful fake (photoshop work)...

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