Nowadays, in the huge stream of news to which we are exposed, it is possible to find as well an enormous number of what is called «fake news». Defined as news containing invented, incorrect or misleading information, they appear in the newspapers, on TV and even more on the social media. The latter is the main channel for the spreading of fake news, being harder to control or to check.
A research published in Science, entitled ‘The spread of true and false news online’, is showing how fast fake news is growing and how fast they circulate on the web. The research conducted on 126000 news on Twitter found out that fake news is circulating faster, penetrating deeper into the social media and reaching more people. Without starting to ask ourselves why fake news has this power, we can consider this as a fact: fake news is strongly present in our system of information.
One of the direct consequences of this phenomenon is the normalization of fake news in the collective imagination of people reading or listening to the news. The taking roots of this idea are that readers are much more prone to accept the fact that a news could be fake. When all newspapers are covering this topic, reporting about fake news, and a big amount of public figures are denying the charges against it, claiming that this is fake, people become used to this rhetoric and they are ready to believe to these statements. So, while it is always good to ask ourselves if something is true or not, and doubt is always a powerful weapon, the normalization of fake news is making it become the norm and so, no need of a double check.
This situation of fake news spreading started playing a major role in the political debate as well, creating a big deal of incertitude among citizens and having several effects on the approach of politicians to the public debate. In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the transformation of the political debate is the systematic introduction of the dialectic instrument of the “charge of fake-news”. This accusation, playing with the idea that the public is already prepared to the possibility of news being fake, is basically answering to any accusation, no matter if true or not, saying that it is fake, so that it is a fake news.
Quoting an easy example on this topic, Donald J. Trump is constantly accusing a big part of the media in the United States of spreading fake news, in particularly on him, calling them “fiction writers”. Supporting this vision, a poll by “Morning Consult and Politico” (when) said that 46% of voters believe that major news agencies just fabricate their news about Trump. This poll is showing how the fake news phenomenon is affecting news agencies as well as the political debate, giving space to the inclination of citizens to believe in this kind of charges very easily.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global annual study, showed that the media saw the greatest decline in trust of any institution in 2016-2017, falling to just 43%, showing again how fake news is affecting the press and the information producers in general. Many political leaders around the world have followed the example of Trump. The main issue with this phenomenon is the systematization of this idea: indeed, the technique of escaping from accusation saying that those are false has been always used, being part of a strategy to undermine the positions of the enemies. The problem and the difference between this technique and the charge of fake news is the role that this accusation has in the whole system of fake news. The context created by the spreading of fake news contributes to the systematic use of this charge in the political debate and is not any more of a sporadic excuse.
Therefore, if we combine the different elements of this situation, we can observe a picture where fake news is spreading, the charge of fake news is becoming more and more common and the press and official media are losing credibility. In this fertile ground, the fake news accusation is coming from the conspiracy environment, from the populists’ language and is gaining its place among the accepted analysis.
The widespread feeling that traditional media are not addressing nor answering people’s questions is deeply connected with their loss of popularity and with the tendency for people to stick to what is perceived as a more direct source of information, such as Twitter accounts. The balance of information is moving between two sources –the traditional media and the social media –, each one with its own problems when it comes to truth reporting. Accordingly, in the end, what we get is a reality with several layers of incertitude, from the one directly connected with the fake news itself to the second one connected with the accusation of it.
This incertitude about the truth, becoming part of the normal political debate, is weakening it and giving more and more power to the ones that show the easy truth, very digestible and sure, instead of the ones that try to explain the complexity of the reality. In moments of incertitude, a sure and strong answer is what people will always look for, and this is what fake news and charge of fake news are doing since they are complex only to at first glance. Because as Mark Twain said: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
The doubt on the news is not only legitimate but good activity, it should push us to check the sources, but when the doubt becomes automatic and no more related to fact checking, and then we make out the doubt certitude. With the rise of fake news and the charge of fake news is more and more accepted, we are witnessing the rise of the doubt to doubtless truth. By Pietro Menghini