Finding truth in the fake news era

“I’m not going to give you a question – you are fake news.” With that, Donald Trump turned away from CNN reporter Jim Acosta and pointedly ignored him for the rest of the press conference. Acosta had been asking for clarification on an unverified Buzzfeed report which claims that Russia has links with, and holds unsavoury information on, the American President-elect. Trump’s words captured two features of today’s political landscape which we should all be worried about: the proliferation of ‘fake news’ in the media, and the subsequent ability to kill debate by dismissing an opponent’s opinion as totally illegitimate.

Deliberately fabricated or unsourced articles have floated around the internet since its inception, but only in the age of social media have they collectively become known as fake news. It became the buzzword of analysts all over the world in 2016 as outrageous stories spread on both sides of the political spectrum. Facebook in particular was blamed for its spread during the presidential election; in response, it has promised to flag articles which have been disputed by third party fact-checkers in the future.

Needless to say, fake news is bad news for politics – but it’s also an important sign of the times.

Needless to say, fake news is bad news for politics – but it’s also an important sign of the times. A single story can be shared to thousands with the tap of a button, and with enough likes or retweets, even the most dubious of headlines won’t be questioned. Social media accelerates our interactions and uses algorithms to show us what we like to see. In its efficiency, it’s stifling the pursuit of political truth in these divided times.

We live in a culture increasingly geared towards fast food, instant messaging and easily digestible media. Our tweets are less than 140 characters and our Snapchats rarely exceed a few seconds. More often than not in the past year, I’ve seen breaking news on social media before seeing it on a news website. This is not an omen of doom – technology presents wonderful opportunities for the future of media, and knowledge has never been so easy to share across the world. As the sudden rise of fake news (or suspicion thereof) has shown, however, all this instant information has a dangerous side.

Social media is so called because it puts content into our hands; the curation of a feed or timeline is now a facet of identity. To ease this process of identification, sites like Facebook and Twitter tailor their feeds with algorithms so we see content we are likely to enjoy. This is why fake news so often goes unchallenged – this is why we are so shocked when our side loses, because we’ve only ever seen posts of support. Social media gives everyone a voice, but often, we are shouting into an echo chamber where our ideas are simply affirmed and repeated back to us. We are thus engaged in politics, but we never have to grapple with those who disagree with us unless we wander into the internet wilderness in search of an argument. In place of debate, we have the perpetual re-sharing of news which might be dubious, but which pleasantly confirms our political righteousness.

How can we broker the compromises on which democracy is built when we can’t see those who disagree with us, let alone grant them legitimacy? When we stop engaging with our opponents, it is all too easy to misunderstand, mock, or even demonise them. It’s a mentality that states the Mysterious Bad Guys on the other side are the ones gullible enough to believe in fake news; on our side of the spectrum, we’re happy just to bask in the abundance of headlines in our favour.

As we know, social media’s presence in our lives is likely only to get deeper with time. The technology which connects us to the rest of the world will change every part of our lives, and politics is no exception. It is our responsibility to make sure that the pursuit of truth is not side-lined in favour of clickbait and exaggeration. As curators of our own online feeds, we can look for more reliable news sources than just the Worldwide Trends list and challenge the half-truth headlines we see. More importantly, though, we must step outside our comfortable bubbles and engage with the ‘enemy.’ How can we keep news in check and rescue adversarial politics from division? Discuss.