“Every public has its own universe of discourse and…humanly speaking, a fact is only a fact in some universe of discourse.”
Writing those words three quarters of a century before the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, Robert Park — a former newspaper journalist and one of the founders of the Chicago School of sociology — understood fake news to be an intrinsic element of any information ecology. Long before Mark Zuckerberg started to be treated as a rapacious business man, noted real and fictitious publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane aimed to exploit the commercial potential of fake news, as did others who predated and succeeded them. On top of intentional attempts to distort or misinform, many unintentional mistakes caught by the public — and a suspicion that there might exist more unidentified ones — have further reinforced a certain stance of skepticism among media audiences over the inherent veracity of the news report.
Yet it is not an overstatement to say that the main story about journalism in the first month after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States has been a sense of collective shock, outrage, and despair over the prevalence of fake news. Why has this been the case? And what does this mean for the short-term future of journalism?
Most post-election reports on fake news have focused on production side issues, such as the location and potential motivations of the various purveyors of fake news; the changing geopolitical landscape of information warfare; the economic benefits for social media and search engine platforms; and the need and desirability to implement technical and/or financial restrictions that could minimize the spread of misinformation, among others. A production side focus is important and these are all valid instantiations of it. However, this piece examines the other side of the coin by concentrating on some reception dynamics that might undergird the greater prevalence of fake news in the contemporary setting than in the past.
Setting aside discussions about echo chamber and filter bubble effects, which have been analyzed profusely, I want to address three concurrent trends in our media reception practices related to the rising presence of fake news. First, there is ambivalence toward an information infrastructure in which the barriers of access to having one’s voice heard are lower than in the past, and where the reach is potentially much broader. Second, there is a growing perception of limitations in the ability to detect bias in a media environment in which editorial selection increasingly relies on algorithms. Third, there is a crisis in the cultural authority of knowledge that affects not only journalism but other key institutions of modern life, including science, medicine, and education.
Fake news stories have been around for as long as truthful ones. One element that distinguishes the contemporary moment is the existence of a fairly novel information infrastructure with a scale, scope, and horizontality of information flows unlike anything we had seen before. Facebook, for instance, reaches more than 1 billion users daily. This infrastructure enables people to create content alongside established media institutions, and not merely consume it. This, in turn, has allowed previously silent voices to be heard, not just in their localities but all over the world. We have credited these changes with contributing to the breakdown of authoritarian regimes such as in the case of the Arab spring. But these are the same changes that have made it possible for a fake news story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump to be shared hundreds of thousands of times.
We celebrate the new infrastructure when it helps undermine information practices of oppressive governments, and denounce it when it contributes to misinforming the citizens of liberal democratic states. But unfortunately, it seems unrealistic to have one without the other, since they are the two sides of the same coin. This does not mean that truthful accounts of oppressive governments are equivalent to untruthful accounts about democratic candidates, but that the information infrastructure that contributes to the spread of both types of accounts is one and the same. Ambivalence about this infrastructure might tempt us to call for policing its destabilizing capabilities in some cases, but this might have the unintended consequence of curtailing its emancipatory potential in others.
This ambivalence is related to a second trend, namely a growing perception in the limitations of detecting bias in algorithmic editing in comparison to human editing. Traditional journalistic outfits have been around for a long time. Over the years, the public has collectively developed ways of identifying bias, and also for distinguishing truthful accounts from parodic or satirical ones. The Watergate investigation was taken to be truthful, the Swift Boat story was initially lent some credibility but discredited later, and the ingenious headlines of publications such as The Onion are not normally interpreted literally.
On the contrary, platforms like Google and Facebook are much more recent additions to the media ecosystem, and their selection procedures are far less known by the public. In addition, their reliance on algorithmic curation has endowed these procedures with a certain opacity that makes it even more difficult for the public to come up with strategies that successfully identify bias. Algorithms do not come from out of the blue: They are written by people who often work for complex organizations. These people and organizations go about their business with conscious and unconscious biases that result in, as Larry Lessig and others have argued, politics in code. However, we feel less capable of deciphering the politics embedded in code than those embodied primarily by people and organizations.
The issues of ambivalence and limitations in bias detection converge with a deep crisis in the cultural authority of knowledge. Trust in the media as an institution has been fairly low for a long time. In an ongoing research project on the consumption of news, my collaborators and I have found, for instance, that the same news item is attributed a higher level of credibility if it is shared by a contact on a social media platform than if it is read directly on the news site that originates it. When asked about this difference, interviewees say it is because they often distrust the media since they are inherently biased, and, on the contrary, their default stance towards their contacts is one based on trust.
This crisis in the cultural authority of knowledge is not an exclusive property of the news. It also applies to other key institutions of modern life, such as medicine, science, and education. We find expressions of this crisis in the debates over the role of vaccines in the rise of autism, which has been echoed in the media and has led to many concerned parents, despite the repeated statements to the contrary by leading medical experts. We also see traces of this crisis in science. For instance, the controversy of evolution versus creationism is still alive and affects the teaching of biology in many schools, in spite of the lack of support for creationism from reputable scientific sources. Social institutions like the media, medicine, science, and education had the capacity to effectively moderate the notion advanced by Robert Park that “a fact is only a fact in some universe of discourse,” and thus create a stronger common ground among disparate constituencies. But this capacity seems to be less effective these days than in the past.
What does this mean for the future of journalism, at least in the short term? Despite the widespread cry for technical solutions and commercial sanctions, it is unlikely that things will change drastically until there are concurrent transformations in reception practices. It may be possible to develop algorithms that identify sources that have repeatedly propagate false information and automatically impose restrictions on their ability to get advertisement revenues. That might bring a temporary fix to centralized attempts to maliciously misinform. But I suspect that those perpetrators could easily dismantle a given operation and quickly launch another one. In addition, this would not necessarily stop decentralized sources of fake news that either intentionally or unintentionally create and/or spread false accounts on social media. These policing procedures could also have an unintended negative effect on parody and satire, which have long had a healthy role in the quality of democratic discourse, and raise the specter of censorship more generally.
If my short-term prediction about the limitations of production-side remedies is right, what we might see alongside with these attempts to algorithmically curtail the spread of fake news is that mainstream journalistic organizations would increasingly have to demonstrate to the public the veracity of the news — and denounce the falsity of alternative accounts — rather than take for granted that aspect of the reception experience. This might possibly not reduce the reliance on fake news stories among those predisposed to believe what these stories state, but it could raise awareness among the less committed segment of the public.
Beneath the surface of many post-election discussions about fake news lies a certain collective unease about the mismatch between the 20th-century routines associated with print and broadcast media, and the 21st-century information practices of our increasingly digital lives. Maybe it is no longer feasible to assume that the delegation of editorial processes to mainstream media suffices to yield accounts about current events that form the basis of common decision making among the citizenry. This is not a normative claim about whether this is desirable or not, but an empirical observation based on the information practices of large segments of the population. We can feel nostalgic about a media world slowly but steadily waning, or instead imagine that perhaps a more decentralized and effective everyday culture of critique and argumentation might emerge over time. As Leonard Cohen wrote in “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Pablo Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.