"Fake news", the dissemination of false information, has become a major threat to public trust in democracy and news media outlets over the past years.
Just last month, the Global Corruption Barometer for Latin America and the Caribbean showed that over half of the people in the region think false information is spread frequently or very frequently to influence elections. Numbers were especially high in Brazil, where more than three in four citizens think this happens – surely not a coincidence, considering the numerous reports of fake news around Brazil’s 2018 presidential election. But the issue is a global one, affecting the 2016 presidential election in the US as well as the Brexit referendum in the UK.
So, what does the phenomenon of fake news – and the use of the phrase – mean for anti-corruption activists around the world?
What is fake news and how does it relate to anti-corruption?
The term "fake news" refers to both the intentional distribution of incorrect information as well as to efforts to discredit accurate reporting. The concept has been used at several points in history, however its use has increased rapidly over the last five years.
While the effects of fake news have yet to be fully understood, they give cause for concern among anti-corruption activists. Anti-corruption activism relies strongly on trust in independent media outlets and the use of social media, and the impact of fake news in undermining this trust is a real threat.
In addition, activists might find themselves targeted by fake news campaigns, damaging their credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. While the scale of the threat should not be exaggerated, anti-corruption activists should consider strategies to guard against fake news.
In many cases, fake news can cast doubt on the integrity of people or institutions who are targeted by a particular fake news story.
The most prominent recent example was the use of the term around the 2016 US presidential election. Several commentators labelled misinformation spread in the context of the election as fake news. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump also used the term extensively in political speeches and his Twitter account to discredit various news outlets and news reports unfavourable to him – a practice that continues to the present day.
There have also been misinformation campaigns against anti-corruption activists themselves. In Ukraine, anti-corruption activists at NGOs and officials at anti-corruption bodies in the country have been targeted by fake news stories, with the apparent objective to diminish the public’s faith in them.
Fake News has also been used in conjunction with ‘dark’ political advertising, obscuring the origin of campaign finances and facilitating corruption in electoral processes
Declining trust in traditional media
The most common and worrying effect of the presence of fake news is declining trust in the media. Fake news contributes to a growing suspicion of traditional media, leading to a vicious cycle where it becomes possible to use the term in order to discredit unfavourable news reports. In its latest report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, UNESCO suggests a general trend of declining trust in news media around the world.
Ironically, the democratising power of social media seems to contribute to the declining trust in traditional media. As social media contributors are supposedly independent, they are often perceived by citizens as being less biased and uncaptured by special interests. Since most fake news stories are shared through social media, there is also a growing scepticism of any news reports posted on social media.
But just how big is this problem? A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2019 found that almost 70 per cent of US citizens say "made-up news and information greatly impacts Americans’ confidence in government institutions". Over a third of the population claims to regularly see fake news online, with 59% per cent saying that at some point they have shared fake news online, either knowingly or unknowingly. At the same time, around 60 per cent state that they feel confident to recognise fake news if they encounter it. Other studies suggest that in regions with lower digital literacy rates, like countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, people are often even more affected by false information.
In combination with a general distrust in 'the' media, these findings are a little worrying.Declining trust in media outlets and social media platforms constitutes a challenge for those who want to use them in the fight against corruption.
So, what can be done to address the problem of fake news?
1. Detect and label fake news
The first step is to identify false information when it is published and label it accordingly. In March 2017, Facebook started putting tags such as “disputed by 3rd party fact checkers” on news stories found to be untrue by independent fact-checking organisations in the US.
Though a fairly laborious process since individual stories must be checked and reviewed (and automated detection remains difficult), it seems to have had at least some effect. Users perceived untagged news stories as more accurate than tagged stories, regardless of whether the untagged reports were actually factually correct or not.
2. Debunk and counter fake news
Another strategy to counter fake news is efforts to debunk them. These are usually websites operated by independent organisations aimed at countering fake news by revealing their falsehoods and inconsistencies. A prominent example of this is the Ukrainian Stop Fake project, started in 2014, which gathers fake news stories in the Ukrainian context and showed evidence to prove that these were fake. Other online services specializing in fact checking are FactCheck.org, Snopes or AfricaCheck.
However, merely pointing out fake news is rather ineffective for debunking. An alternative strategy is that corrective information should be highlighted. Also, debunking efforts should be bi-partisan to increase their impact.
3. Remove economic incentives
Several fake news items in the context of the 2016 US election were published by websites that were created to make money. These hoaxes can be at least partially countered by removing the economic incentives behind them. Google, for example, has made efforts to ban websites publishing fake news from receiving ad revenue. This can be an effective step against a certain type of fake news: those that can be identified and have monetary incentives. However, removing ad or other revenue is unlikely to help against propaganda and might discourage satirical content.
4. Make facts matter
Strengthening fact-based journalism is key for countering fake news. One way to achieve this is for news organisations to get ahead of the curve and make an effort to be the first to publish news and establish indisputable facts, instead of reacting to fake news stories. Additionally, the use of data to analyse media networks and fake news networks alike to find out when information is needed and how people can be reached.
Better and closer cooperation between media and academia could help as well. Academic research needs to be communicated more effectively so that it is more digestible by journalists and public-facing organisations.
The (real) good news
While none of the four strategies provide a silver-bullet against fake news, a combination of measures might be helpful. For anti-corruption activists and the media, it is worthwhile to consider these strategies and, in some cases, adopt them. Fake news is unlikely to incapacitate anti-corruption efforts, but given its effect on undermining independent media and devaluing corruption allegations, it should be taken seriously by anti-corruption players.
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