Fake news isn’t new, and history shows us that the tangible impact it can have shouldn’t be ignored
The relationship between media and politics has often been fraught. Spin doctors are now all-too familiar in the political world, who seem the true architects of the country’s future, while portraying a false image of political figures to the country’s major news outlets to make them seem electable, trustworthy, and honourable, when in fact the entirely opposite may be true. This fixture of political life has oft been parodied in popular culture, but shines a light into the dangerous lies that can be propagated, and the political consequences they may have.
Questionable facts and ‘spinning’ the truth was as somewhat of an open secret under the regime of New Labour and Tony Blair. The infamous dossier that exaggerated the probability of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction led Britain, indisputably, into a war for the wrong reasons. Even if one thinks the Iraq War was necessary, there can be no denying that fake news was used to falsely justify this war to the British public.
Some years on, the extent of the lies became apparent and there was an outcry, and rightly so. Yet recently we have noticed something of a resurgence of this kind of systemic lying, and I would argue that this represents a huge threat to democracy. Voter systems are predicated on the idea that media outlets reliably present facts regarding political parties and candidates such that voters can be informed when they cast their ballot for the leader of the country.
So when news outlets give unprecedented amounts of airtime to certain candidates in the run up to an election, ignore others, and slant the information to favour one candidate over another; this represents a threat to the democratic system. Fake news is this taken to an extreme. Wilfully confusing matters and misinforming people should be viewed in a dim light in any scenario or form of journalism, but in the political sphere, it can have particularly disastrous consequences.
Ted Cruz’s campaign trail for the Republican candidacy was marred by such repeated attempts by media outlets to confuse matters, to obfuscate his positions, and to make him the target of ridicule. Regardless of what one thinks of Cruz’s suitability to be President of the United States, again, there can be little doubt that the manner in which he was portrayed by mainstream media made him little more than a bumbling comic foil to Trump’s alpha-male posturing.
It was claimed that Cruz was the Zodiac Killer, an accusation which was originally deliberately started as a mock-conspiracy, but eventually evolved into a genuine conspiracy among a surprising amount of Americans. Ten per cent of Floridians agreed with the accusation, despite the Zodiac Killer having operated before he was even born.
Ted Cruz also had to fend off the accusation that his father was part of the conspiracy to assassinate JFK. The dissemination of this obviously ridiculous information by major news media outlets was irresponsible insofar as it derailed the Cruz campaign—Cruz being the most significant competitor to Trump in the run-up to the candidacy vote.
These completely ridiculous stories, some would argue, unjustly influenced the outcome of the election. This culture of fake news that sprang up around the time of the campaign for the Republican candidacy and has continued ever since has skewed voter masses, and could well be one of the most powerful reasons behind Trump’s eventual success in the Presidential election.
Now that this resurgence is in the public eye, various groups—Facebook and the Labour Party most notably—have vowed to combat fake news online. If political groups are starting to become involved, we must read this as a clear indicator that today’s fake news threatens the way our democracy operates.
Fake news doesn’t pose a direct threat to democracy, but it does expose its fundamental flaw
By Joe Baverstock-Poppy
Fake news is media content that aims to mislead. Examples of falsehoods spread by fake news include claims that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President and that Clinton practices witchcraft. If successful, fake news has a potential to generate a significant impact on elections. However, does this impact threaten democracy? I would argue it doesn’t threaten democracy but exposes democracy’s fundamental flaw.
If it were so that fake news’ impact on elections were threatening democracy, there would be something about that impact that undermines the conditions required for our politics to be democratic. I would argue that the fundamental condition for our politics to be democratic is that those who hold the legal reins of power, the government, must be accountable to the interests of those subject to that power, citizens. There is much discussion on what it means to be accountable to those interests, but that discussion isn’t necessary for this question.
The greatest impact that fake news can have upon our politics is to make the people elect a government on false pretences. Yet people electing a government on false pretences doesn’t threaten democracy. Even if the people have misled interests, it doesn’t make the government any less accountable to those misled people.
It must be distinguished that fake news doesn’t undermine democracy like a state controlled press does. With fake news, people freely choose to read that which misleads, which confirms their beliefs, under a state controlled media the people have no choice but to read the misleading state media. Those who consume fake news vote in their interest: falsehood. A state controlled press undermines democracy by denying people, who desire the truth, the truth and so obstructs them from voting in their interest: truth. Nothing in the definition of democracy requires voters’ interests to be informed.
Lately, many have viewed democracy as a sacred cow without flaws. We need to be more critical and aware of its shortcomings to be prepared for them. Fake news demonstrates that democracy can quite easily produce governments that will act according to feelings as opposed to evidence.
This limitation of democracy has been pointed out throughout the history of political philosophy. Plato argued that democracy fails to form good governments since it was subject to the irrational whims of the wider public, whims which fake news today exploits.
Many have tried to find a remedy to this irrationality that fake news exploits and show that a democratic society can exist without fake news. John Stuart Mill suggested granting the educated extra votes. In response to Mill, many argue that the educated already have more electoral weight, since the opinions the educated express through the press would be heeded by the public. Therefore, granting the educated extra votes would be demeaning and unnecessary.
This seemed to be true for a long time. However, following the rise of the internet, the press now has a diminished role in informing the electorate: 30 per cent of US adults get news from social media. As a consequence anyone can disseminate news online.
Others have argued that libel laws are a way to ensure the public aren’t swayed by lies. However, there are many limitations to libel laws. Corrections often go unnoticed. Journalists can easily continue practicing in the industry and spreading new, subtler, falsehoods. Government entities can sue those who lie about the state, granting immunity to anti-government conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. But the final deathblow to libel laws has been the internet: the anonymity and scale of the internet has made libel laws impossible to enforce. The police lack the resources to identify and arrest the perpetrators of viral lies like Pizzagate.
To conclude, fake news, although misleading and dangerous, does nothing to obstruct the will of the people from being expressed in politics. Furthermore, not only is fake news compatible with democracy but, with the advent of the internet, fake news seems inseparable from democracy.