Fake becomes legit: social media and the rise of disinformation in democracies

Fake news is not new – Ulises Mejias identified disinformation tactics during the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2013. It is not possible, he argues, to make a clear distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news before and after the Trump era. Journalists themselves have been complicit in creating a new media economy where survival depends on clicks. Deregulation, surveillance techniques and a discourse of patriotism mean democracies are becoming capable of supporting disinformation in ways similar to those deployed in autocracies.

While we didn’t exactly predict the rise of ‘fake news’, in 2013 a Russian colleague and I completed an academic article on the disinformation tactics used during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Like many others, we started to recognise the ways in which citizens generate, consume and distribute false information by interacting with old and new media, contributing to a social order where lies acquire increasing authority. While we focused on the Russia-Ukraine case, we felt it was important to point out that these tactics might serve as a template for future scenarios, including in Western democracies.

The article will not see the light of day until this year, four years after it was finished. Interestingly, part of the reason it has taken so long to get it published is that some reviewers felt our argument should omit references to Western democracies. The sentiment seemed to be that this kind of stuff could not happen here.

That was, of course, before the 2016 US presidential elections.

In the aftermath of the fake news scandal, it seems to me that we need to think more about the connections between the quantification of sociality via social media and the popularisation of extremist politics. I’m not proposing the former is the cause of the latter (although some have made this argument). I am simply suggesting that the analysis needs to go beyond pointing out that new media have provided new platforms for otherwise recessive voices, or that they make us more narrow minded in general.

As recently as five years ago, it looked as if social media was going to help write a very different chapter in the history of political movements. The Arab Spring, euphemistically known as the Twitter Revolution in some circles, seemed to announce an era in which social media was going to empower activists, engage citizens, and topple dictators. Unfortunately, not only did the ‘flash mob’ effects of social media fail to translate into lasting political change, but we also now have to wonder whether they did not actually help to create repressive conditions in ‘free’ Western democracies. Granted, it is too soon to tell whether Brexit and Trump (who partly owe their popularity to the internet), will soon pass into history as momentary disasters that were quickly corrected, maybe even with the help of social media (predictably, we are again seeing determinist articles claiming that post-Trump-inauguration protests would not have been possible without Facebook).

But if I had to make a bet, I would wager that what we are witnessing is better explained as the beginning of the parallel ascendance of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and authoritarian politics.

What I mean by this parallel ascendance is a situation where distorted information is disseminated through digital media to make social inequality acceptable, often by employing a totalitarian discourse. Think about it: these days, both politicians and digital media companies offer us a version of reality that is convenient because it presents easy solutions to our problems. Without a job? Blame immigrants or the EU! Overweight? You need this app to track your steps! Afraid? Keep the Muslims out! Lonely? View profiles of singles in your area! Both politicians and digital media companies offer personal empowerment if we subscribe, unconditionally, to their platforms. Both discourage questions about how the system works. Just click ‘I accept the terms’ and get on with it.

And both offer the illusion of perfect customisation: products, services and politics that speak just to us (customisation so perfect it might actually be corruptive). At the centre of this theatre is a user, who like a video gamer, feels as if he or she is the one in charge. But unlike a video game, the power of this narrative is not that it presents an alternate reality or a fantastic simulation. Rather, it offers an enhanced or augmented version of reality (perhaps ‘diminished’ fits better here) based on selective slices of the world. A reality that the user can binge on until it obscures any other reality.

Disinformation is key to these theatrics, which brings us back to fake news. As my co-author and I argue in our Russia-Ukraine article, the emerging feature of new forms of disinformation is that it is not only the state-controlled or state-allied media organisation that produces fake news. Citizens themselves actively participate in the creation of disinformation by using social media platforms. Whereas information spread by governments or corporations can be contested or at least sceptically dismissed, information produced and shared by regular users (or sometimes by AI robots masquerading as users) acquires authenticity, and spreading this information is an act rewarded by social media platforms by metrics such as attention, popularity and visibility.

Facebook and Google have started to institute mechanisms (software- or human-driven) to try to identify and quarantine fake news. What they don’t realise is that in an ideologically divided society, this will only mean that one side will report the other side’s news as fake, and each side will accuse each other of censorship. This solution also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that people indeed want their fake news.

While we all have favorite politicians or CEOs we would like to blame for this state of affairs, I think it is also important to point out how most of the responses to the fake news scandal from what we might call the ‘liberal side’ have thus far been short-sighted.

The first kind of response is that what is happening is not our fault, but the fault of a new kind of villain: the algorithm. There have been innumerable mainstream and academic pieces exposing the ways in which algorithms used by companies and governments collect data to create a state of automated and generalized surveillance. Algorithms, without human oversight and intervention, can make prejudiced decisions and inaccurate assumptions. More to our point, they can agnostically promote the spread of disinformation, since they are designed to promote things based on popularity, not accuracy.

At first glance, it would seem like a good thing that this kind of literacy about media systems is becoming more mainstream. The relative popularity of Black Mirror and other dystopian sci-fi narratives suggests that many (I often count myself among them) are ready to believe that society is on the brink of collapsing under the weight of anti-social behaviors unintentionally augmented by the same algorithms we trusted to make our lives better. In the context of the fake news post-election scandal, this translates into the belief that social media has devolved into a demented public sphere in which algorithms provide the platform for anything, regardless of its veracity, to go viral if it gets enough upvotes.

The other, perhaps more honest response to fake news is that humans, not algorithms, are to blame. Yes, we were duped by politicians and the media – people seem to be saying – but we will never be duped again. In order to ensure this, we need to return our focus to ‘real’ news: we need to support real journalism, and educate the masses through media literacy so that they can recognise fake news and stop being such dupes.

But by perpetuating a seemingly obvious distinction between fake and real news, I believe this kind of liberal response is an avoidance of responsibility. It makes it seem as if only the fake side is capable of producing fake news. Our side, after all, produces only real news, right?


Tweet posted 10 January 2017 by soon-to-be President Donald J. Trump.

It is convenient, but disingenuous, to believe that environmental degradation, unchecked surveillance, and indemnity for the corrupt – not to mention lying White House press secretaries like Sean Spicer – started the day Trump assumed office. One need only look at Trump’s predecessors to see that these trends have longer trajectories, even if the media campaigns used to justify them had more finesse than what we can expect to see in the near future.

Furthermore, to insist on a clear distinction between fake and real news bypasses any kind of analysis of the economics that makes disinformation possible and indeed desirable. Even though journalists are feeling under attack, it is important to remember that in the new media economy they have helped to create, media organisations have to produce a daily barrage of clickable juicy headlines just to survive; the veracity and quality of the actual content seems to almost not matter.

Thus, the liberal response to fake news is dangerous because it hides the ways in which media systems in democracies are becoming capable of supporting disinformation in a manner surprisingly similar to that of media systems in autocratic regimes. Across the board, in democracies and non-democracies, we find the kind of industry deregulation that creates oligopolies by giving more power to favoured corporations; a state willing to impose special measures of surveillance during more or less permanent periods of emergency; a discourse of patriotism that shames dissenters and encourages self-censorship; collaboration between government and private sector to develop and implement technologies for surveillance; and increased secrecy about what governments and corporations do with data collected from citizens, all in the name of profit or security. In the US, these trends – which have culminated in the fake news phenomenon – have been ongoing for decades, long before Trump came along.

These similarities suggest that disinformation can become a feature of media environments regardless of which side – liberal or conservative, democratic or authoritarian – is in office. Naively, we cling to the idea that in these conditions falsehoods can be challenged with facts. But facts cease to matter much in a system in which the act of lying itself is endowed with authority and certainty.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. It first appeared at The Disorder of Things.

ulises mejiasUlises Mejias is an associate professor in the Communication Studies department at SUNY Oswego, and the director of the Institute for Global Engagement. His book, Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (2013), was published by University of Minnesota Press.

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