Solving the Problem of Fake News through Dialogues For Development: 1/2
We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.
When Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation (from which the above line is taken) in 1981, he mustn’t had hoped to see the civic world to face the consequences of information-overload within just 36 years. Nor did we.
With 49% of users worldwide consuming fake news daily while using the internet or visiting social media sites, (in particular, Facebook and Twitter), social activity has discovered strange situations where there is a concrete inversion of life. Highly reputed Media channels show stuff that is, at times an insult to logic, and yet maintain a sufficiently-high engagement from information consumers across the national demographic. The uprise of seasonal celebrity-culture in TV and Internet is not surprising and that is exactly the issue we ought to get to when questioning the problem of Online violence.
Dialogues For Development, an initiative by Prodios, had its first chapter event of discussion on December 7th, 2017 in Bangalore and New Delhi. A small bunch of some 15–20 people participated with interest in exploring the theme of Fake News and Online Bullying. Whether the state of misinformation that holds power to manipulate the public opinion impacts us more than it did before, whether online bullying practices like trolls influence the spread of violence and fear, and whether we are safe to exist in this unchecked distribution of fake news, this event covered interrelated themes from a factual standpoint.
This article (in two-parts) compiles the gist of this much-relevant conversation between some really serious thinkers of the country.
A New Instance of Fake News
Misrepresentation or distortion of facts, that what we call Fake news, isn’t new. Literature has its moments when trojans fell from a fake horse, or when Viola disguised herself as a man to win the love of another woman. Particularly in our post-industrial age, many Nobel Prizes for Economics are awarded to recognize and encourage works on how human propensity towards misperception distorts the functioning of the world through information asymmetry and cognitive bias.
All forms of media, be it governmental, private, entertainment or news media, practices shape our relationships with society and construct realities in specific contexts. And the conflict of interests between real and fake news is just as consistent as it was in 1925. When Harper magazine critically wrote a piece called Fake News and the Public, they predicted the spread of fake news through new communication technologies as a source of unprecedented danger.
We could say that since people explore and know the world through synthetic means such as language, we ourselves could be fuelling the agencies of deceit, just as Kant explains in his Critique of Pure Reason. To put things in that context, things haven’t essentially changed for people from Plato’s Republic where men mistook shadows on the walls for reality to The Matrix: the desert of the real is still not in sight.
Yet, when Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion in 1922, his interests lied less in discerning the truth from non-truth, and more in creating political observatories that would feed expert advice to the influential class of America: the overwhelmed (and quite understandably, the obliged politicians). As it turns out in 2017, the bets haven’t paid well since in guaranteeing the freedom of the press, there has also emerged a parallel sustainable economy of fake news.
Relegating the role of public opinion in government policymaking, the industry of fake news is primarily directed towards political provocations. Concerns about the vulnerability of democratic institutions are only strengthened when we notice the tectonic shifts in news distribution, such as the proliferation of online news and political outlets, particularly on social media.
Plato didn’t believe in democracy, but he believed in truth. The producers of online fake news believe in neither. And Plato wasn’t active on Facebook, we sure are.
Fake News as a mechanism of Exclusion
As it is, current social media provides a fertile land for spreading misinformation that mocks freedom of expression and curtails the possibilities for political debate. If you can afford an internet connection, you suddenly have a megaphone to run your agenda.
If we are talking about fake news, we got to look at our involvements and our interactions with such pieces of news. Misinformation of social media in propaganda-building is severely dangerous for two reasons:
a. The abundance of information sources
b. creation of echo-chambers
Despite access to a world wide web, assessing the credibility of information is exponentially challenging. We are dealing with proliferated information news sources, visible to a not-always-rational audience struggling to interpret the social cues that accompany this information.
Leveraging the tendency of people to follow like-minded people, and no conflicting information to counter the falsehoods, the end result is a lack of shared reality, and increased polarization. In a typical Fake news journey on say, Twitter, these situations can enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to a very large group of people which in turn uses the fake news to
- normalize prejudices,
- foster hatred and bias towards the other,
- manipulate public opinion on Nation’s political/economic activities,
- catalyze and justify violence (both subjective and systematic)
Ruling over our concepts of individual rationality, Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that most of our decision-making stems from shared group-level narratives. Taking their claims, it is reasonable to assume that our receptivity to information (and also misinformation) has less to do with rational evaluation than with social processes and heuristics.
Source credibility And Social interpretation of information.
Addressing the case of how American public formulates its opinions about US military engagement abroad (and in general, foreign policy), Matthew A. Baum & Tim J. Groeling’s War Stories admit that the media systematically distort the information the public vitally need to determine whether to support such initiatives.
And once the misinformation is on broadcast, corrections do not reverse the impact a fake news piece has created. In a study by Berinsky on the cognitive processing of true and false political information, Trump supporters did not change their voting preferences even though they were given corrected information.
The Reality of Fake News
The meaning is clear: individuals trust information coming from familiar sources and also from sources that align/reinforce their worldview. And as the case is, our behavior is strongly driven by social signaling and preservation of our social reputation. Amidst preserving our inclinations towards political ideologies, fake news has boosted the spread of divisive and violent ideologies such as misogyny, body shaming and Islamophobia by individuals and institutions of media.
Spreading the Illusion: How Fake News Propagate
Contemplating about the society’s relationships between consumption, eroticism and Sovereignty, Bataille comments:
If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return
After a thorough insight about the consumer through big data analysis, the spread of fake news is a journey of a complex ecosystem of websites, social media, and bots.
The same features that make social media highly-engaging also facilitate their manipulation by highly active and partisan individuals. Their chances of becoming powerful sources of misinformation are highly magnified by technological tools like bots. Be it the effect on the 2016 US Presidential elections or the ever-replicating bots, (In Russia, around 45% of active Twitter users are bots), everybody on the internet is exposed to the threatening persuasions.
People are strange when you’re a stranger
Polarized and segregated structure observed in social media triggers two basic mechanisms of online sharing:
i) social influence
Users end up in echo chambers that create homogeneous social groups that prefer selective exposure and confirmation bias. So even if you share high-quality information, limited individual information and information overload will prevent social networks from discriminating between messages on the basis of quality at the system level.
That is to say, social media allows a low-quality information to spread as virally as high-quality information. This only facilitates higher exposure to fake news online.
Bots are getting Right in Selfie-Culture
Playing a disproportionate role in spreading and repeating misinformation, bots are automated social media accounts that target users with many followers through replies and mentions. Bots exploit the vulnerabilities that stem from our cognitive and social biases to amplify the reach of fake news.
Bot activity unveiled hidden social polarization patterns in the community and triggered an emotional response of individuals that brings to light subtle privacy hazards perceived by the user base.
Polarization is the only outcome when politically motivated individuals provoke interaction by injecting partisan content into information streams whose primary audience consists of ideologically-opposed users.
State: the coldest of all cold Monsters
Confirming Nietzsche’s opinions about the governmental control over knowledge, historical and contemporary research indicates that spread of influential information is an outcome of orchestrated and strategic campaign. Seldom a matter of misunderstanding, fake news spread in favor (or against) of some political/military goal. The designs of media reportage in an Islamophobic USA will find similarities with the British campaign of fake news around alleged German atrocities during World War I to mobilize domestic and global opinion against Germany.
Although anyone can take false information as news, fake news is, in recent years, essentially a pathology of the right. Extreme voices from the right are often exposed in dominating the dialogue in the mainstream media space and that makes a neutral person suspicious of fact-checking sites as well. This leaves them particularly susceptible to misinformation, which is being produced and repeated, in fact, by those same extreme voices.
(The next and final part of this article discusses the psychology of trolling, digital stalking and online violence in context to social media. It also explores the connections between increased instances of online violence and societal conflicts, with focus on the role of fake news in the periods of national crisis, military tension and elections.)