Truth and the media
The rise of fake news
Up to 20% of the public are not following the news on a regular basis, and may thus be especially receptive to fake news and the misleading assertions of populists. This attitude represents a threat to our society, says LMU communications expert Carsten Reinemann.
Fake news suddenly makes news – why has the phenomenon become so prominent?
Carsten Reinemann: The term ‘fake news’ is currently being applied primarily to false assertions that are circulating on the Internet, in particular on social media, but also to objectively false statements made by politicians. It is, of course, true that people in the public eye have not always been open, and have lied about their intentions – even in democracies. But that a politician should stand up and flatly deny the validity of demonstrable facts, and repeat assertions that have been shown to be untrue, is new. The rise of fake news raises a fundamental question: What exactly is our conception of reality? There is tremendous diversity in how people perceive the state of their society. Many of these perceptions are erroneous, so fake news items that appear to confirm them are particularly potent. However, when politicians make false claims – and act upon them – they take decisions that have no factual basis. The US president’s executive order on immigration seems to demonstrate what happens when measures are taken to tackle problems that are largely imaginary.
There is, however, no obvious way of establishing any particular perception of reality as correct by decree
Reinemann: The heart of the matter is, of course, how one defines truth. Is there any such thing as THE truth? I could embark here on long ontological discussion, but the practical issue is quite simple: A widely agreed consensus on what reality looks like is an indispensable prerequisite for a functioning democracy. When a society can no longer agree on whether the crime rate is rising or falling, democracy is in trouble. Then the question is not “How do I solve this problem?” but rather “What exactly is the problem?” The current situation in the US has a great deal to do with the political polarization of American society, with each side drawing its information from a specific selection of sources. This tendency has been amplified by the Internet, because social media facilitate the formation of echo chambers – communities of the like-minded in which all the information available reflects, and apparently confirms, what one already believes to be true. Extremely partisan TV and radio stations have also played an important role in creating this resonance effect.
How significant is the role played by social media in the hype over fake news?
Reinemann: False information can be propagated at lightning speed over social networks, which are not subject to any sort of editorial control. In the past, the established and trusted media acted as filters. They decided what news was fit to print before it was released to the public at large. The fact that the ordinary consumer has become an agent for the widespread dissemination of news and other forms of information represents a fundamental break with this model. Furthermore, the Internet has given rise to so-called alternative media, which are not always very particular about the validity of the information they put out. This phenomenon originated and developed in the US, but we now have it in Germany too – on websites such as Politically Incorrect or on channels like Russia Today and Sputnik, which are financed by foreign interests. Many of these media take highly partisan positions that verge on extremism, and their notions of journalistic standards leave a lot to be desired. Preliminary findings have shown that considerable numbers of people obtain their information from such sources. These media facilitate the diffusion of extremist views and unsupported assertions into the broader public sphere, and thus into current debates. But so far, very little systematic research has been done in this area.
The quality media are now devoting more attention to refuting fake news – and are themselves accused of disseminating lies. Why is that?
Reinemann: The reappearance of the tainted term Lügenpresse is a paradigmatic example of a debate that has taken on a life of its own, and has completely lost sight of the relevant facts. Figures have been cited as an indicator of declining public confidence in the media without reference to the fact that there has been no such decline over the past 20 years. Indeed, surveys demonstrate that levels of trust in individual media, such as public-service broadcasting or newspapers, are still very high. It is nevertheless true that a not insignificant section of the public – between 15 and 20% – has no trust in the established media whatsoever. Seen against this background, the fact that the media have begun to place greater emphasis on their core responsibility of providing the public with verified and reliable information is a positive development. Over the past decade or so, the quality media have tended to assume that information is now easily accessible to everyone on the Internet, and began to focus on its interpretation and contextualization. But now it has dawned on them that one cannot simply assume that the facts are clear and agreed on by all. That is why this renewed focus on establishing the facts is a positive development. However, this does not mean that they can now reclaim the attention of those who have opted out, and disconnected themselves from what is actually going on in the world around them.
What do you mean by ‘disconnected?’
Reinemann: I use the term to refer to another trend that has been building up over the last 15 to 20 years – not only in Germany, but also in many other European countries: A growing fraction of the population no longer bothers to follow the course of current affairs in established, mainstream news media. Moreover, if and when these individuals come across new items of information, they are often incapable of interpreting them, because they do not have the up-to-date background knowledge concerning the state of the world and its doings that would allow them to place the information in its proper context. This deficit is one of the reasons why fake news and misleading assertions so often fall on fertile ground. Communication scientists have defined this group – the ‘disconnected’ or the left behind – pretty well. It is made up of the less well educated and less well off, and it is the socioeconomic group in which the voter turnout has fallen most drastically in the last 20 years. This underlines the political dimensions of the problem.
In addition to the notion that the mainstream media disseminate lies, there have also been attacks on academic researchers and their work – what do these two spheres have in common?
Reinemann: Taking an even broader view, it is quite evident that there has been a decline in trust in and respect for institutions generally. It is possible to interpret this development as a positive result of modernization, as evidence that people have become less willing to take the word of ‘the authorities’ and to raise questions about the status of institutions. The problem arises when each individual begins to regard himself as the sole arbiter of the truth – when expertise and the ability to apply certain methods of enquiry and verification are replaced by subjective perceptions in judging whether or not a proposition is true. It has been suggested that criticism of authorities can also foster belief in an overriding conspiracy theory – the notion that everything done by powerful elites essentially serves the purpose of manipulation. In fact this kind of thinking is widespread among those groups who subscribe to the idea that the press is in the business of telling lies. These people have the impression that the decisions that determine the country’s fate are made not by elected politicians but by a small coterie within the elite. Consequently, they believe that normal citizens have no influence on these decisions. This mode of thought is not shared by the majority of the population, but it cannot be ignored. The Internet has perhaps made its presence more obvious, and it forges links with like-minded individuals there. This explains why the broader public is only now becoming aware of the existence of these subcultures.
So this sector of public opinion has become more obvious, but not necessarily more prevalent?
Reinemann: In Germany the great majority of the population respects and accepts the principles enshrined in the country’s Constitution (Grundgesetz), and has confidence – perhaps more than ever before – in the institutions mandated by that Basic Law. However, it cannot be denied that there are smaller groups in our society that are moving in the opposite direction. There has always been a certain percentage of Germans whose firmly held authoritarian views place them on the extreme right of the political spectrum. Indeed, this segment of opinion is contracting somewhat. However, all of these extreme views can find a platform on the Internet, a forum unlike any they have ever had before. They now have access to a broader public and they can intervene in current debates anonymously via social networks. That may acquire sufficient momentum to expand the appeal of this kind of thinking. Those who have already adopted such attitudes can now receive positive feedback, which encourages them to pursue a noisier and more offensive strategy. When one considers the figures – which suggest that 10-15% of the population sympathize with extreme right-wing notions – this potentially adds up to a very respectable decibel level! In Germany, unlike the case in the USA, we have a tendency to try to stifle open discussion of unpalatable views. But the growing awareness of how many shades of extremist opinion there are will perhaps mobilize the considerable resources that liberal democratic societies can draw upon in their own defense.
In light of its broader implications, what is the correct way to deal with fake news?
Reinemann: The inference that more must be done to inculcate a better understanding of the implications of democracy and improve media competence is certainly helpful. But one should not overlook the fact that there are other factors that play a role in inducing individuals to adopt extremist views or to vote for populist political parties as a signal of protest and resistance: Feelings of isolation, experience of failure or the impression of having been left behind are all strong predictors for radicalization. The real question relates to how a society can convincingly assure all of its members – regardless of their level of education, income or status – that they truly belong to the community.
Carsten Reinemann holds the Chair of Political Communication at LMU‘s Institute for Communication Sciences and Media Research.