The Deliberate Dissemination of Fake News Is A Democratic Threat

Fake news is being wilfully disseminated by a substantial minority of the population and this is a huge threat to the democratic process.

It’s no secret that fake news is making it harder for people to keep up with current affairs. According to a Pew Research study, about two-thirds of Americans said doctored videos and images had become a major barrier to understanding basic current affairs.

It’s not just an American problem, either. study conducted in eighteen countries by the BBC World Service in September 2017 found that 79% of respondents were worried about what was fake and what was real on the internet.

A recent report published by Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre highlights the fact that whilst the majority of the population are confused about what’s real and what’s fake, there is a substantial portion of social media users who are deliberately sharing fake news on their feeds.

17.3% admitted to distributing news in the past month that they thought was made up when they shared it

Their study had 2,005 respondents who completed the questionnaire between July 5–16, 2018. Their findings showed that among those who shared news on social media in the past month, 42.8% said they had shared inaccurate or false news. Crucially, 17.3% admitted to distributing news in the past month that they thought was made up when they shared it.

Who is deliberately sharing fake news?

Overall, the report found that social media news sharers tend to have higher educational attainment, be more interested in politics, and are more likely to identify with a political party than an average member of the public.

Their findings showed that Conservative supporters and those with right-wing ideological beliefs are more likely to share false or inaccurate news and to be reprimanded by others for doing so.

Conversely, Labour supporters, and those who hold left-wing ideological beliefs, are more likely to encounter inaccurate news and to correct other social media users for sharing inaccurate news.

Why is this a problem?

If the individuals distributing fake news are more likely to be of a Conservative political demographic then the fake news that the average American, Brit or voters elsewhere in the world are being exposed to is weighted towards one side of the political spectrum.

Couple this with the effect of companies such as Cambridge Analytica, who proved that Conservative rhetoric such as the ‘Crooked Hilary’ campaign could be used to shift undecided voters one way or another in the run up to the 2016 election, and you have a mounting threat to democracy.

What can we do to stop this?

If social media platforms and news outlets don’t work together to develop mechanisms to identify and reduce the extent to which fake news is visible on users’ social media feeds then we are all at risk of being misled.

But as well as introducing new laws, regulations or mechanisms to prevent a disinformation campaign at large, it is important for us to understand the motivations of why these people are wilfully sharing fake news online.

The Loughborough University report asked people what motivates them to share political news on social media, ranking answers from a scale of ‘Very important’ to ‘Not at all important’.

The most important motivations for sharing were to express feelings and to inform others, with 65.5% of social media users who share news considering these goals to be very important and somewhat important. Then followed motivations to find out other people’s opinions (51.1%), to influence others (43.9%), and to provoke discussions (43.7%).

18.7% of respondents thought it was important to share news ‘to upset others’

The report found that 18.7% of respondents thought it was important to share news ‘to upset others’, and 29.6% thought it important ‘to feel like I belong to a group’. While only a minority of users share news to antagonize others, it is, at almost 20% of news sharers, a substantial minority.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

What next?

If we don’t push our governments and social media platforms to act soon, it is this minority who will cast the deciding vote in determining who are the future leaders of our countries.

Don’t believe me? We’ve already seen it — just look at the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

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