Fake news

What is “fake news” and why is it the best thing to have happened to journalism?

Professor Charlie Beckett and Associate Professor Bart Cammaerts discuss the rising trend of hoax stories and the challenges and opportunities they present.

Google and Facebook are now realising how problematic this actually is because advertisers don’t want to be associated with this fake news.
A graphic showing newspaper cut outs that spell 'fake news' | LSE Connect

Professor Charlie Beckett, Director of POLIS, says:

I think fake news is amazingly addictive but also very, very damaging. It’s a kind of weird, perfect storm. We have a political and social situation in the world now where there is a lot of fragmentation, combined with the rise of populist movements, global polarisation and the technology to create fake news and spread it so rapidly.

All these factors have come together to act like tinder to the fire. Fake news is like a canary in the digital coal mine and a sign that not all is well with the mainstream news media because they are not as effective as they once were.

The fake news crisis reflects a pervasive loss of faith in the idea of authority and whether you can trust experts and professionals. Mainstream media is battling with a serious credibility problem but the rise of fake news actually gives it an opportunity to stand apart as the trusted news source.It’s a business opportunity to say “we are not fake”.

Journalists are in the business of not just killing fake news and countering it by fact-checking and myth-busting, but also providing a healthy alternative. This is a great chance for journalists to go on an ethical mission that in the end will benefit them revenue-wise. Mainstream news that can be trusted is a good business modelin a world where there is so much misinformation.

The next question we have to address is who should take responsibility for fake news? Do we want the platforms that carry it – Google and Facebook – to be accountable? Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg deciding what fake news is? 

How harmful is it? It is very difficult to measure its impact. It may be mobilising opinion without actually changing it and the idea that fake news altered the course of the US election is probably exaggerated. It does also seem to be less prevalent here in the UK than the US. One of the reasons is that we have a more subjective and partisan press in Britain and the public accepts this. They are used to the Guardian and Telegraph reporting an event in a completely different way.

What is the next step in the cycle of fake news? It looks messy at the moment, it feels messy and it has downsides to it. But we cannot disinvent the internet. The mainstream media have to tackle it by finding a way forward that doesn’t reject the public’s appetite for the emotional and instinctive news that it finds so appealing. The mainstream media need to provide news that is argumentative, human and social without being fake, destructive or deceitful.

Professor Charlie Beckett is the founding director of POLIS, the think-tank for research and debate into international journalism and society in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.

Associate Professor Bart Cammaerts, Department of Media and Communications, says:

Spreading propaganda and fake news is not a new trend; there have always been people pushing out conspiracy theories and the like. The difference today is that we now have a technological and media infrastructure that feeds on clicks and on the politics of provocation.

We also have a whole range of political actors whose agenda is to spread untruths via social media, which has profound consequences for our democracy. A political economy has also been created which allows people to make a lot of money by creating sensationalist stories which attract a lot of clicks.

Google and Facebook are now realising how problematic this actually is because advertisers don’t want to be associated with this fake news. Early on, Facebook and Twitter were merely telecommunication platforms that hosted news. However, they are now seen as a different form of media which is ingrained in our society, taking editorial decisions on what content is acceptable for their sites.

Just who is responsible for policing fake news in this new environment? Social media platforms are not necessarily neutral, so there is a role here for journalists to adjudicate. It’s called fact-checking.

The media are seen to be losing their legitimacy, have very low public trust and are viewed by the populists as part of the problem – the “dishonest” media elite. The challenge for journalists is to take up their democratic responsibility and make it very clear to the public what content is trustworthy and what is not.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US had a very strong tradition of civic and public journalism, which might be up for renewal given the situation we face today. The role of journalists to defend democracy has taken on even greater importance since the election of Donald Trump, who has a hostile relationship withthe media and absolutely no respect for their role in society. Maybe there is a middle ground we need to find.

On the one hand, journalism needs to find new models to reinvent itself and become profitable and trusted again. On the other hand, advertisers are starting to complain about what is happening on social media platforms.

There is a long-standing tension between traditional media and social media, with the latter profiting from all this content that the mainstream media is producing without giving anything back. Maybe the time is ripe for some new configurations to come out of this situation.

Associate Professor Bart Cammaerts is director of the MSc in Media and Communications at LSE.