Who is responsible for fake news? And what can be done about it?
• Trump offering free one-way tickets to Africa & Mexico for those who wanna leave America.
• Police find 19 white female bodies in freezers with “Black Lives Matter” carved into skin.
• Donald Trump protester speaks out: “I was paid $3,500 to protest Trump’s rally”.
During the 2016 US election campaign, teenagers in the town of Veles in Macedonia found a way to make some money by posting material on big social media sites. Facebook gets its income from advertisements, and gives tiny payments to suppliers of content. The teenagers could make money if their material attracted lots of readers, so they made up outrageous stories that they thought would find an audience.
Some fake stories, from the teenagers or others, do find an audience, like the ones listed above about Trump and Black Lives Matter, which were among the top 15 fake news stories in 2016.
Some made-up stories seem so plausible that readers share them with their friends. As the shares and retweets multiply, a story begins trending. It might even be reported in the mainstream media.
So who is responsible? The Macedonian teenagers, for sure. But they wouldn’t bother except for the economic model provided by social media. The advertisers on social media usually don’t care; they benefit when a story generates lots of clicks. The mass media are hurting financially and so do much less fact-checking, so bogus stories sometimes are run. Then there are the readers – that’s us – who think a story is worth sharing and don’t take the trouble to check whether it’s genuine.
James Ball is an experienced journalist who cares about the news and is alarmed by its corruption. In his book Post-Truth he tells about the problem, those implicated in it, and what can be done about it.
The problem is far deeper than the spread of made-up stories. News can be distorted, one-sided and in other ways misleading. The label “fake news,” when used to refer to manufactured fantasies, is inadequate to capture the full extent of the problem.
Ball provides an informative and often eye-opening tour of the issues, giving numerous examples to illustrate his analysis and recommendations. Ball’s preferred term is “bullshit.” This refers to claims that are neither right nor wrong but rather indifferent to the truth. When bullshit fills the air, audiences may despair of figuring out what’s really going on and start distrusting every source of news, including the more established ones. The subtitle of Post-Truth is How Bullshit Conquered the World.
Ball starts with the seemingly obligatory stories of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, canvassing the use of bullshit in these campaigns. He then examines six groups involved in spreading bullshit. Politicians are important players, many of whom want to manipulate audiences and use public relations, spin and other techniques. Then there are “old media” – newspapers, television, radio – that play a big role in propagating dubious stories. As the old media are squeezed financially, they have less capacity to check sources and are more likely to run fake stories.
Ball continues through new media, fake media (such as created by the Macedonian teenagers) and social media. Each of these helps spread bullshit. As in the case of old media, economic imperatives are involved. Online, at least where advertising reigns supreme, getting clicks is currency, so it becomes attractive to run or allow stories with little checking.
The final of the six chapters on who is spreading bullshit is titled “… and you.” Audiences contribute to the problem. Ball cites the experience of a news operation created to provide quality news, with a more positive slant. It drew on research showing that people wanted more of this sort of news. The news operation soon folded. What people say they want (high quality news) is not necessarily what they actually end up buying or reading.
Audiences are attracted by scandals, gore, celebrity gossip and stories that reinforce their pre-existing views. The various forms of media, to survive financially, pander to these audience preferences. In this sort of environment, Ball says, bullshit thrives. Audiences are thus part of the problem.
A study of Twitter found that half the people who retweet a news story never bother even to read it. The implication is that people are reacting so quickly that they are driven by emotion rather than careful reflection. This is fertile ground for bullshit. It’s only possible to dream up some claim that appeals to readers’ gut reactions, namely something they’d like to believe is true, and then it starts spreading wildly with little or no scrutiny.
What to do
After explaining the problem, telling who is spreading bullshit and why, Ball turns to solutions. One of them is fact-checking. Some large media organisations, such as the New York Times, employ fact-checkers, and there are now a number of independent bodies undertaking this role.
Fact-checking is valuable, but Ball says it’s not a full solution. One shortcoming is that fake news runs far ahead of fact-checkers. Most news consumers read the politician’s lie or the fake story and never get around to seeing what fact-checkers say about it.
There’s also a deeper matter: manufactured news items are only part of the problem. The majority of suspect claims are some combination of right and wrong. They may be biased, selective or misleading, and not easily amenable to fact-checking.
What else? Ball provides advice for politicians, media and news consumers. For example, one piece of advice for politicians is not to explain why the opponent’s claim is wrong, because this just highlights the claim. Explaining why alarms about terrorism are misleading only makes terrorism more salient. It’s better to reframe the issue, namely to provide a different narrative.
One of Ball’s recommendations for media is to be careful about headlines, making sure they capture the key ideas in stories. Because many readers share stories based solely on headlines, some traditional headline-writing techniques need to be rethought.
Finally, Ball has recommendations for readers and voters. One of them is to put effort into thinking about stories and not just reacting to them emotionally. Another is to question the narratives that you believe as much or more as the ones you don’t believe. He also suggests learning basic statistics so you can assess claims made in the media.
All of Ball’s suggestions are worthwhile. If taken up, they would do a lot to change the media environment. But what would encourage people to follow his suggestions? Ball’s own analysis of the problem shows that politicians and the media are captives of large-scale processes, especially economic imperatives and audience emotional responses.
For decades, scholars and critics have been examining media cultures, especially the news, showing all sorts of systemic problems. Journalists and editors treat events as newsworthy when they conform to what are called “news values.” For example, prominent people involved in conflicts are more newsworthy than ordinary people behaving amicably. Hence, Trump’s campaign for a wall receives saturation coverage while amicable relations between people living near the border between Mexico and the US seldom warrant front-page media stories.
Ball doesn’t address the systemic biases in mass media coverage that pre-dated the rise in what he calls bullshit. His analysis is illuminating but needs to be supplemented.
Is there any hope? A few readers of Post-Truth will take up Ball’s suggestions, but for major change, collective action is necessary. The lesson from history is that social movements are needed to bring about change from below. An individual can seek to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions, but to tackle global warming, mass action is needed.
What sort of collective action can make a difference regarding the news? There are signs in what is already happening in circles where accurate information is vital.
When filter bubbles are needed
The mass media have a strong preference for reporting events involving violence: “if it bleeds, it leads.” This is frustrating for proponents of nonviolent action, especially when there is little media coverage of a large peaceful protest or the reports are about a minor scuffle rather than the issues at stake.
The methods of nonviolent action include strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, occupations and rallies. Research shows that nonviolent campaigns are more effective in overthrowing repressive regimes than armed struggle. Nonviolent action is the preferred approach of most social movements, including the labour, feminist, environmental and peace movements. Yet despite its effectiveness and widespread use, nonviolent action is marginalised in mass and social media coverage.
There’s an obvious reason for this. Nonviolent activists have no wealthy and powerful backers. In contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars annually are spent on militaries, with the full backing of governments and associated corporations. It is not surprising that media coverage follows power and money. Furthermore, the news values used by journalists to judge newsworthiness lead to a neglect of nonviolent alternatives.
In this context, nonviolent campaigns need to create their own news ecosystem, circulating information through sympathetic newsletters and websites. Getting rid of fake news and bullshit is fine for the dominant military approach but would do little to make audiences more aware of nonviolent options.
Voting is governments’ preferred method of citizen involvement in politics. Besides voting, there are numerous methods that enable citizens to participate in the decisions affecting their lives, such as initiatives and referendums. A method I find appealing is citizens juries, in which randomly selected citizens hear evidence and arguments about a contentious community issue, deliberate about it and make a recommendation.
However, alternatives to representative government have hardly any profile in the media. There is massive coverage of politicians, including their campaigning, policies, foibles and infighting, but almost none about participatory alternatives to the system in which elections and politicians are dominant. This means that campaigners for such alternatives need dedicated sources of information to find out about research and action, and to maintain their commitment.
Many social movements that are today considered progressive have struggled in the face of hostile media environments. Ball’s concerns about the rise of bullshit and the problems in gaining access to information are warranted. But for those seeking to challenge perspectives based on massive money, power and ideology, it has never been easy.