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Fake news: A post-truth medium

Lewis Sanders IV
November 17, 2016

From the pope endorsing Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton arming "Islamic State," fake news has become a powerful force to reckon with. But supporters have lashed out at measures aiming to cut off its circulation.

Deutschland Berlin SAP-Geschaeftsstelle
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Media attention has shifted towards the unsuspecting phenomenon of fake news in a bid to understand its impact on the American electoral process since Donald Trump's stunning victory at the polls.

On Facebook, fake news garnered more engagement than mainstream news sites from August to November 8, according to Buzzfeed's founding editor Craig Silverman.

Fake news' performance on the social media platform equated to 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments compared to mainstream news' 7.3 million, Silverman said, citing data collected from Facebook.

Quick to paint a picture of influencing the divisive US elections, accusations emerged on social media platforms and news outlets depicting fake news as deliberately misleading the electorate, prompting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to announce new measures to combat the phenomenon.

"After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading. These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right," Zuckerberg said in a post.

He claimed that "more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic," referring to Facebook users' News Feed.

"That said, we don't want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here," Zuckerberg said.

Facebook's latest measures have been met with some disapproval for what critics claim amounts to an editorial policy that could filter content deemed important for sociopolitical movements such as the alt-right, a driving force behind Trump's electoral victory.

But questions concerning its political aims have arisen in the aftermath of Trump's successful campaign, which often bordered on incitement against minority groups in the US and decrying mainstream news as biased.

Fake news surpassed engagement on social media platform Facebook in the run-up to the US presidential elections
Fake news surpassed engagement on social media platform Facebook in the run-up to the US presidential electionsImage: picture alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

Tactics: Shift, manipulate, delegitimize

Bart Cammaerts, professor of media and communication at the London School of Economics, told DW that the threat of fake news lies in its ability to fan populist sentiment and shift public opinion by undermining established media norms.

"The difference between parodying and fake news lies in its intent. The fabrication of fake news is not meant to serve as a critique or to mock something, it rather serves aims that are inherently manipulative, often to shift public opinion or to delegitimize something or someone," Cammaerts said.

"It tends to go hand in hand with populism, a fanning of various conspiracy theories, a rejection of experts and a stringent critique of the media, which overall tends to emphasize factuality in its reporting," he added.

He pointed to a similar phenomenon in Germany, where right-wing groups, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and PEGIDA, have accused mainstream media of purposefully skewing their positions, describing it as "die Lügenpresse," or the lying press.

"As German people are more keenly aware, this emergence of post-truth politics, and everything that comes with it, is not new. It harks back to a fascist and anti-liberal era, which was equally ruthless, racist, authoritarian and accusing the media of being 'die Lügenpresse,'" Cammaerts said.

@dwnews Fake news: How reliable is Facebook as a news source?

'Democratic obligation'

In 2015, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) media rights watchdog published a report criticizing propaganda under the guise of news that aimed at disrupting Ukraine's push towards Europe in the wake of former President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster.

The propaganda in question employed similar tactics used by fake news websites during the US elections, including misleading headlines, fabricated quotes and misreporting, prompting the EU to create a taskforce to "address Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns."

Needless to say, the issue of fake news, which has been used to garner support for various political causes, poses a serious danger to the fabric of democratic societies, whether in Europe, the US or any other nation across the globe.

Even the right to free speech, much touted by followers of fake news sites, has its limits, Cammaerts told DW.

"Freedom of speech is never an absolute freedom, not even in the US with its 1st amendment doctrine. While it might be someone's freedom of speech to spread and circulate fake news, it is the democratic obligation of media organizations to expose this and to actively counter this, which can also mean refusing to distribute it further," he said.

"Given that I think Facebook and Twitter do have editorial responsibilities, it is valid for them to actively counter the spread of fake news. These editorial decisions should, however, be transparent."

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