On 16 August 2018, three hundred newspapers all across the United States coordinated with one another to run editorials defending the value and integrity of the work of professional journalists: “JOURNALISTS ARE NOT THE ENEMY”, proclaimed the front page of The Boston Globe – the use of ALL CAPS presumably being an indicator of who the message was directed at. Donald Trump’s response on social media was immediate and was recorded in one of his trademark early-morning Twitter posts: “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our Great Country….BUT WE ARE WINNING!” Context makes clear who Trump had in mind: basically all traditional news outlets, including the national broadcasters, cable TV stations such as CNN – though not Fox News – and printed newspapers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Meanwhile, Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, repeatedly refused to disavow Trump’s earlier characterisation of the press as the “enemy of the people”.
Yet Trump – who has falsely claimed to have coined the term “fake” (as in “fake news”), even though he began to use it on Twitter only in December of 2016, when discussions about the impact of fake news on the outcome of the previous month’s presidential election were already well under way – is only the symptom, not the cause of the ascent of fake news. A full historical explanation would need to look at the long-term trends that for decades have chipped away at the perceived legitimacy of the so-called “mainstream” (or “legacy”) media. It would need to take due account of the twin forces of anti-intellectualism and free market capitalism that have shaped, and continue to shape, much of American public debate – while acknowledging that this is also a country that has produced some of the finest scholars, scientists and philanthropists. At the same time, one should not hastily infer that the current “fake news” epidemic – if indeed this is what it is – is a U.S. American phenomenon only. Even leaving aside its attempts to meddle in foreign elections, Putin’s Russia has perfected the art of exerting domestic political power by creating informational disorientation – what some commentators have described as a form of shape-shifting political theatre. And populists the world over have learnt quickly that vilifying the mainstream media is an effective way of closing ranks – especially when combined with the creation of alternative information infrastructures, such as “in-house” YouTube and Facebook channels.
Both Trump the president and Trump the reality TV host are products of the media – which is why there is a cruel irony to his twisted relationship with the press: the same mainstream news media that first showered Trump with the attentional equivalent of unconditional love when he was still seen as the “wild card” in the Republican primaries, and which was slow to hold him to the same standards of competence and honesty as more seasoned politicians once he had been nominated, found itself vilified by Trump the moment he assumed office. The pattern of trading barbs with the press, either in person or via one of his spokespeople, began the day he became President: recall the spat over turnout figures at Trump’s inauguration rally.
Trump insisted his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history, even in the face of clear photographic evidence that it wasn’t; his then-spokesman Sean Spicer reinterpreted “crowd size” to really mean “audience around the globe”; when that did not help, Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway coined the now infamous phrase “alternative facts”. This was widely mocked as implying that, when reality renders your lies “fake news”, you can simply move to an “alternative reality” where your assertions are true. Since then, members of the “reality-based community” – to use a phrase that originated from the Bush administration – have been treated to a spectacular series of claims, retractions, and denials, most recently culminating in Rudy Giuliani”s pithy, if utterly confused, pronouncement that “truth isn’t truth”.
Yet it would be foolish to think that, up until Trump’s presidency, the press had been universally respected – let alone had always acted – as an unbiased source of factual information about the world, or as a guardian of the Truth. The heroic image of journalists selflessly gathering “all the news that’s fit to print” and publishing it “without fear or favour” is itself a heavy idealisation. Consider William Randolph Hearst, the nineteenth-century publisher of the New York Journal whose deceitful war-mongering is credited with leading to the Spanish-American war of 1897. One of the Journal’s competitors, the New York Evening News, lamented the “gross misrepresentation of the facts” and the “deliberate invention of tales calculated to excite the public” – phrases that would hardly seem out of place in any contemporary shouting match between, say, Fox News and CNN. And business interests sometimes get in the way of journalistic standards even in the case of respectable news organisations. Thus, in the Spring of 2017, just as the New York Times began a publicity blitz that touted its commitment to the truth (“Truth: it needs your support”) and that would greatly boost its number of online subscriptions, it headhunted Bret Stephens, a climate-denialist op-ed writer, from the Wall Street Journal – all in the name of editorial “balance” (presumably between facts and non-facts).
Even if journalists have sometimes been complicit in the promulgation of known falsehoods – often enough state-sponsored misinformation, as in the run-up to the Iraq war – the Trump administration’s wholesale dismissal of the value of established news organisations, and its trademark lack of what David Hume called the “sensib[ility] to shame, when detected in a falsehood”, certainly mark a novel development. To be sure, the Trump administration’s war on facts may only be the purest expression of the fact-resistant anti-intellectualism that already marked George W. Bush’s presidency – that is, it may differ from the latter only by degree – yet, as philosophers trained in the art of dialectics are wont to remind us, sometimes quantitative changes really can lead to qualitative transformations: dial up the degree of mendacity and the amount of misinformation in circulation, and the public sphere may undergo an irreversible change for the worse. Is that what motivates worries about “fake news”, whether state-sanctioned or “bottom-up” – as in the many conspiracy theories that have bubbled up in recent years? After all, the problem with “fake news” is not only a supply-side problem – due, in part, to the proliferation of dodgy online sources, from “alternative” health websites to Breitbart – but also a demand-side problem: a fragmentation of the public sphere into highly polarised special-interest audiences. Factor in the possibility of “micro-targeting” specific demographics via social media, and the spreading of fake news becomes a potentially lucrative business model (and, since we live in capitalist times, therefore very nearly a necessity).
What, then, is “fake news”? Surveying existing definitions across the relevant fields of politics, law, journalism studies, and philosophy, one finds a great variety of competing definitions, but also some common themes. First, perhaps unsurprisingly, the medium of the internet receives a lot of attention and is sometimes taken to be constitutive of fake news. But equating fake news with the online publication of knowingly or intentionally misleading claims won’t do: after all a fake news claim does not cease to be “fake news” once it is picked up by the print media or talk radio. To be sure, the internet is an important – perhaps even the main – driver of contemporary “fake news”, but this is something we should try to explain (and not simply take to be true by definition). Second, fake news is often equated with “false news” or with fabrications “from thin air”. Facebook itself reverted to the phrase “false news” in a recent policy change, after having tried for months – with very limited success – to weed out fake news stories from its newsfeeds. While falsehood makes for a stark contrast with the truth, mere falsehood alone does not render a news story “fake news”: if it did, then even unintentional errors in reporting – and “honest mistakes” in general – should attract the same scorn as the malicious spreading of intentionally false claims. Perhaps, then, it is intent that makes all the difference. This would place fake news in the same category as lying and deception.
Requiring intent as part of what constitutes fake news would enable us to assign responsibility to specific individuals. Given the very real consequences that, increasingly, fake news can be expected to have in the world – by potentially shaping the outcome of elections, destroying reputations, influencing stock markets – such a move would, for legal and political reasons alone, seem desirable. Alas, things are not quite as straightforward. For, whose intentions should be decisive? Those of the originator of the claim in question? Or those of the intermediaries who merely passed it on, either because they fell for it or because it furthered their agenda, political or otherwise?
In one much publicised story following the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, reporters travelled to a small town in Macedonia that appeared to host many of the domain names associated with fake news websites that had appeared in the run-up to the election. What they found was not a group of paid-up political operatives, but a bunch of teenagers who had discovered that heavily politicised fake news stories – the more far-fetched, the better – were an almost ideal way of driving web traffic to their sites, thereby generating revenue from online ads. They had no stake in the upcoming U.S. elections, and therefore no intention to influence its outcome, and some even assumed that their stories would be treated by their readers for what they were: instances of sensationalist fiction. Furthermore, in an online environment where it is estimated that two thirds of Twitter posts may be originating from automated bots rather than human beings, it is highly doubtful that we can capture the phenomenon of “fake news” by making it conditional on human intentions to get the audience to believe a particular (false, misleading, or otherwise “fake”) claim.
In order to get a better handle on what is novel about the current phenomenon of “fake news”, it is worth reflecting on some of its likely structural causes. Doing so may help with developing an account of why fake news – or, more precisely, worries about (and accusations of) fake news – have become so prevalent. This, in turn, may allow us to come up with a characterisation of the term “fake news” that is apt for making sense of the predicament we currently find ourselves in. While we cannot expect a definition alone to do the job of explaining what went wrong in the relationship between the media and the public at large, its ability to feature in – and perhaps even suggest – explanatory relationships should certainly count in its favour.
What, then, are some of the trends that have affected our systemic processes of news production and consumption in recent years, rendering them vulnerable to (charges of) “fake news”? For one, there has been a significant acceleration of the news cycle. People no longer get their news once a day, in an aggregated form – either in the form of a bundled-up morning paper or as a late-night news bulletin on TV. Instead, news outlets now compete 24/7 for their viewers’ attention. Second, media markets have fragmented, not least due to the emergence of cable television in the 1980s, the rise of private TV channels and the gradual decline of bipartisan support for public broadcasters such as the BBC. Both of these trends are nicely illustrated by the early success of CNN – the world’s first cable news network – which pioneered the transformation of all news into “breaking news”. Broadcasters subsequently realised that the closest they can get to a monopoly is by cornering political segments – which is how Fox News became the channel for right-wing conservatives in the U.S. (a model that MSNBC later tried to replicate, with limited success, for liberal audiences).
Recently, these trends have converged – most noticeably in the United States – to create what the Toronto-based philosopher Regina Rini calls a “partisan epistemology” which privileges information received from sources that share the same political outlook or tribal affiliation. Partisan sympathies that result in giving one’s associates the “benefit of the doubt” need not be wholly indefensible; depending on context, they may even be a source of much-needed solidarity. However, when they become the main determinant of whom to trust, regardless of context – or even in the face of evidence to the contrary – they can lead to serious distortions in the flow of information. The internet, and social media in particular, appear to be especially vulnerable in that respect. As Rini puts it, “there is something about social media sharing that seems to deaden people’s normal application of consistency-with-the-world filtering on testimony” – which is why even those who ought to know better end up “over-sharing” putative news stories that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be either exaggerated or fabricated from thin air.
In my own work on the nature of fake news, I have been struck by how the aforementioned trends in our media environments have conspired with technological developments, notably the emergence of social media, to give rise to new possibilities of cognitively manipulating entire audiences. The feeling of being permanently inundated with information via a variety of platforms – social media newsfeeds, live TV coverage, push notifications arriving on one’s smartphone – create pressure on individuals to utilise “quick and dirty” cognitive shortcuts in order to try to keep abreast of ongoing developments. Many of these mental shortcuts are prone to cognitive biases. Repetition effects lodge information ever more firmly in our minds, even when we ought to “know better”, and being “primed” by the use of strong emotional language alters our evaluation of the information received. Donald Trump has exploited both effects on the campaign trail where he consistently referred to his competitors as “Crooked Hillary”, “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz, that is), and the like, and he continues to use the same method when he keeps referring to the “fake news media” and the “failing New York Times”.
News providers, too, have begun to cater to those very heuristics and cognitive biases that have been shown to modulate and distort our reasoning. Clickbait is no longer the purview of the shadier corners of the internet, but has become an essential part of the business model of most online news providers. And, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown, the use of apps and social media allows for the microtargeting of specific audiences, making them highly exploitable and vulnerable to fake news stories that, as it were, “hit all the right buttons”. As the magazine Psychology Today memorably – if somewhat sensationally – put it, social media is, after all, “cognitive biases on steroids”. The increasingly audience-specific manipulation of cognitive biases and heuristics is but one way in which false or misleading claims can be implanted and can be algorithmically perpetuated, even in the absence of specific intentions on the part of individual human beings.
To the extent that contemporary worries about “fake news” are genuine and identify a novel phenomenon, they cannot simply be about sloppy reporting, one-off falsehoods, or even maliciously planted rumours. But this does not render the term “fake news” vacuous, as some philosophers have recently claimed. Neither does it imply that we should surrender the term to the polemical and politicised usage of Trump and his associates. Instead, the emergence of the term “fake news” reflects a deep unease about the systemic risks that our habitual processes of gathering and disseminating news are subject to, or so I wish to suggest.
Often enough, a fake news item will be intended, by its originator, to be misleading for its intended audience. When this happens, and when we are gullible enough to fall victim to such a claim, we will rightly feel cheated, and the person responsible will deserve reproach. But what makes contemporary fake news especially loathsome is the way it free-rides on trustworthy, if ultimately imperfect, institutions such as the free press, science, or educational institutions. It presents itself as news, yet it is manipulative and misleading in systemic ways that cannot always be easily pinpointed and called out. It is not wholly unconstrained by the truth – as other forms of bullshit might be – but cares about truth just enough to be able to steer us away from it, influence our beliefs and actions, all the while maintaining a façade of plausible deniability, just in case we do detect it. Fake news, in other words, is truly a phenomenon of the Trump age.