Is fake news the last dying breath of democracy, or a sign it’s still alive and kicking? The eruption of hoax, propaganda and hyperpartisan content swirling around the Internet has increased interest in politics. It has brought many marginalised voices on to the national stage. It has been a wake-up call to mainstream politicians. But will they meet the opportunity presented by the screams of the angry mob(s)? The real challenge is not to rebuild the old public sphere but to listen to what social media is telling us about the new digital democratic reality.
Political journalism has begun to learn this lesson. Initially, there was almost a blind panic among mainstream liberal ‘elite’ media in the United States following the election of Donald Trump, and the accompanying howl of ultra-subjective and false content online. The major American media brands have since benefited from a surge in attention. Many people have rediscovered the traditional virtues of more evidence-based and independent minded news media, alongside overtly partisan sources such as Fox, MSNBC or Drudge.
In America, there has been a renewed effort to create more credible content through investigations, watch-dog reporting, data analysis and fact-checking. ‘Coastal’ newsrooms have realised that they had lost touch with swathes of Americans. Not just citizens in the Midwest or rust-belt rural areas, but many others who felt the obsessions and style of so much of the highly educated, self-referential journalism cadres were not relevant to their lives.
Of course, the President is still there, happily deploying his strategy of tweet-led distraction, disruption and denial. But at least newsrooms are now trying to get out of their boxes intellectually and physically to be part of this new political landscape.
In the UK, our post-Brexit shock to the system has also ushered in a more passionate, antagonistic, confused politics where old tribal faultlines have been replaced by what often appear to be contradictory or novel ideological dynamics. It is no good dismissing this realignment of public sentiment as a failure of public reason or ‘media literacy’. Whether it is showing us something new, or merely revealing views that were always there, it would make sense to pay attention.
In fact, the UK has not imported the US ‘fake news’ virus wholesale. Perhaps our mixed media ecology of a partisan press plus public service broadcasting gave us some immunity. But we have witnessed a growth in the diversity and a change in the quality of voices, from Breitbart on the right, to the Canary on the left. Now everyone with a Twitter or Facebook account can be the receiver, distributor and generator of instant, personalised views and reactions.
When this happened during the so-called Arab Spring, we thought it was A Good Thing. But with the multiplication of mouthpieces comes a more subjective discourse that can be as much about emotion and identity as facts. As Kenan Malik writes, “The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’”. Like Malik, I think that at its worst this can lead to a flight from practical, democratic politics. But to challenge this approach you first have to understand and incorporate it into the new dispensation of political communications.
So, how? One reaction to all this rampant relativism was a slew of well-written, thoughtful books about our new ‘post-truth’ world. They are packed full of insights about its causes (usually: Trump, Brexit, Facebook, Twitter) and neat ideas about reforms (fact-checking, filtering fakes, education). But all seem predicated on a return to a kind of objectivity that feels like wanting to turn the paternalistic clock back. It goes against the obvious fact that much populism is popular, and that people are social, so they love social media. Politicians and journalists have spent decades encouraging citizens to be more individual, sceptical and self conscious, so why the surprise when their digitally-expressed views reflects this? The whole post-War liberal market project celebrated diversity so why are we now so frightened of it?
Instead of just blaming the Russians or Mark Zuckerberg for spreading rumours, it might help if our politicians stopped putting lies on the sides of buses and refusing to take part in debates during election campaigns. Of course, engagement can be difficult. As any (especially female) mainstream politician or journalist has discovered, it can be an ugly and traumatic experience to go online. One solution might be to ignore unrepresentative and performative worlds such as Twitter until they are better policed, or a digital Gresham’s Law drives out the bad pennies.
But engagement for journalists and politicians in the new public sphere is not just about setting up a social media account to propagate your views. It is about listening to what people say amongst themselves or when talking back at authority online.
This is partly about getting better at separating out signal and noise. We all need to be more media literate: voters, journalists and politicians. Yes, this should start in the classroom. In a world where media is so critical to our practical and political lives, we need to teach young people how it works and to give them the tools to take part. But understanding what is truth or what to trust is a continual, life-long process. And quite rightly, those terms should always be seen as contested, but valuable. Transparency, through fact-checking for example, is helpful. But again, we know that top down systems for assigning credibility are often rendered counter-productive in the face of prejudice or feelings. Technology companies that create networks must also take responsibility for their part in the curation of content. But likewise, we don’t want to rely on secret algorithms to separate fiction from fact.
It is complicated. Which is why we all need a proper policy debate about an agenda for shaping the new public sphere(s) instead of knee-jerk calls for crude regulation and restrictions on the right to express challenging and even offensive opinions. It might look like it is full of cowboys and gunfights, but social media is not the Wild West. It reflects reality even while it distorts it. The danger of much of the dystopian rhetoric is that it is can be as unrepresentative as previous cyber utopianism. One person’s filter bubble is another’s vibrant community. Yes, conspiracy theorists can now cluster online with a force denied them when isolated. But so can collective messages of social solidarity in the face of acts of extremist violence. Our journalism and our politics has a chance to be a force for a healthier digital discourse. Their greatest contribution might be to show what media literacy means: the emotional intelligence to listen effectively and the ethical integrity to speak with honesty as well as passion.