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Jan. 8, 2019, 11:25 a.m.

A gloomy vision for “fake news” in 2019: Low-trust societies, the death of consensus, and your own lying eyes

A predictions playlist: “The media landscape is overrun with toxic narratives and polluted information not because our systems are broken, but because our systems are working.”

Our end-of-year “Predictions for Journalism” package has grown and grown and grown since its first iteration back in 2011. For the 2019 iteration, we published more than 200, and it’s possible I am literally the only person alive to have read all of them.

So today and over the next few days, we’ll be running what I’m calling Prediction Playlists — collections of predictions centered around a particular theme. Hopefully they’ll give you a point of entry into what can be an intimidating pile of #content. Today’s theme: fake news. (Or: “FAKE NEWS!”)

Will the quality of information we use to make political choices get any better in 2019? Or are we at the doorstep of an even worse era of “fake news” and other mis-, dis-, and malinformation? These predictors looked at the big picture and, more often than not, came away less than perfectly optimistic.

An Xiao Mina, author of Memes to Movements and director of product at Meedan:

“We need a vision for a new journalism, and a clear path to supporting and sustaining it in a world where consensus can no longer be taken for granted.”

Whitney Phillips, assistant professor in communications, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University:

“The media landscape is overrun with toxic narratives and polluted information not because our systems are broken, but because our systems are working.”

james Wahutu, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard:

“I think the end of 2018 is the top of the rollercoaster track. The descent, which we are not ready for, is going to involve a lot of screaming as we hurtle towards Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 U.S. elections.”

Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact:

“[Donald Trump is] like an indestructible monster in a Godzilla movie. The authorities keep firing at him, but he just keeps walking through town, gaining power.”

One significant subject of debate this year was the threat of deepfakes, AI-generated fake videos that can create close-to-life renditions of people saying and doing things they’ve never said or done. Is it a major threat to democratic discourse — or a shiny object being given too much attention at the expense of more serious problems?

Jared Newman, an analyst at Betaworks Ventures:

“Detecting AI-generated forgeries is not simply a new version of an old reporting challenge. No amount of journalistic ingenuity and doggedness will match the scale, speed, and accuracy at which they will be distributed in the coming years.”

Rubina Madan Fillion, director of audience engagement at The Intercept:

“This technology is evolving so rapidly that as quickly as we can find ways to counter it, its creators can adapt it to make it more convincing.”

Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft:

“Maybe I’m being too technologically determinist. Maybe this type of content won’t have a disproportionate impact. But the problem is I don’t think we have the ten years we need in order to wait for the longitudinal studies to be carried out.”

Discussions around “fake news” and misinformation tend to be focused on the United States and, to a lesser degree, Europe. But the potential impacts are even greater in less developed countries without histories of robust media systems to fall back on. These predictors focused on the impact of misinformation on politics in Africa (especially South Africa and Nigeria), Asia (especially India and Indonesia), and Brazil.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones, executive director of Africa Check:

“In complex tinderbox societies, the potential for mis- and disinformation to sow not just social discord but real violence is very clear.”

Cherian George, professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University:

“These democracies will be done in by their own mainstream political parties — including supposedly centrist, secular, democratic ones — who have no real answers for the genuine grievances of citizens.”

Moreno Cruz Osório, cofounder of Farol Jornalismo:

“Electoral campaigns, especially that of the president-elected Jair Bolsonaro, accelerated a disintermediation process characteristic of the social internet.”

Illustration of “The Seer” by Adamastor Studio used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 8, 2019, 11:25 a.m.
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