When misinformation reigns: the true scale of the fake news threat

From Prospect’s new cyber supplement—online falsehoods have an even more corrosive effect on democracy than you might think

August 26, 2019
Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/PA Images

So much has been said about the phenomenon of falsehoods peddled online that it’s tempting to conclude that we all understand the problem. And so many intelligence agencies and parliamentary inquiries worldwide have examined the dangers of foreign interference in domestic electoral processes that it’s logical to assume that we either have in place all the defences required, or at least understand what needs to be done. Yet almost every week brings new revelations about just how big the challenge is, and how ill-equipped democracies are to tackle it.

In the first quarter of this year alone, Facebook claims to have removed a staggering 2.19bn fake accounts. So much for its initial argument that the peddling of deliberate falsehoods remains a “marginal” problem.

Far from receding into the known-and-dealt with, the plague of misinformation online is getting worse—along with the plague of extreme right-wing content. A recent investigation by Germany’s Der Spiegel, for instance, concluded that no less than 85 per cent of all content shared on Facebook originating from a German political party is connected to the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD. The accuracy of much of this material cannot be guaranteed, to put it mildly.

The onset of artificial intelligence has already demonstrated that bots and other proxy online actors can mimic actual human behaviour in more realistic ways. Furthermore, the technological ease with which videos can be faked adds another layer of supposed reality to such activities. The more the impact of these operations is studied, the more it becomes clear that, even if they are sometimes amateurish, they do have a serious impact on electoral processes.

The purpose of peddling deliberate political fabrication is not necessarily to persuade people to vote for a specific candidate or party, but rather to destabilise an electoral process or even a country by discrediting political movements, candidates, ideas and structures. Indeed this was likely the ultimate motivation behind Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest. Much fake material is also designed to encourage a sense of alienation not only from elected politicians, but from civil servants as well, by suggesting that they can’t act as impartial deliverers of government services.

In that respect, it does not matter if the conspiracy theories peddled online are credible. Quantity here matters far more than quality, and the more such fake stories appear, the more people may be tempted to conclude that those who rule them are not merely unfit to do so, but are irretrievably biased.

The wave of falsehoods heaped on candidates during electoral campaigns has a more direct impact on the conduct of elections. Candidates are often thrown off course by sudden allegations which, however scurrilous, require dispelling and therefore waste precious electoral time. That in itself makes campaigns more cumbersome and unpredictable: French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign devoted considerable resources to creating a permanent rebuttal team against fake online material. At least in France, they were successful in warding off the virtual enemy, unlike in the United States and other European countries.

And there is no question that targeting a candidate with a torrent of online falsehoods can cause damage. First, there is a natural reaction among voters to assume that there is “no smoke without fire,” that if an allegation is repeated frequently enough, there must some truth to it. If, for instance, so many websites discuss Hillary Clinton’s connections to a child sex ring in a pizza parlour—an actual allegation during the 2016 election—there must be something to it. However ludicrous the claim was, it was believed by one person who took action and appeared at the pizza parlour with a gun.

Online misinformation can also accentuate the perceived vulnerabilities of politicians. Just ask US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was recently hit by a three-minute doctored video clip, purporting to show her struggling to finish a sentence, no longer in control of her faculties.

Technically speaking, the Pelosi video wasn’t a “deep-fake,” as such doctored products are now called. It used selective editing to interfere with footage that already existed, rather than projecting Pelosi into an entirely new alleged environment. It was instead what the trade now calls a “shallow-fake.” Still, the video clip was downloaded by almost two million people and shared no less than 40,000 times just 24 hours after its appearance on Facebook. It even attracted the attention of @realDonaldTrump who, of course, instantly retweeted it to his 60m plus followers.

It was quickly unmasked as a forgery. But it achieved its purpose, drawing attention to Pelosi’s relatively advanced age: “you know, she’s 79 years-old, and we all age a little differently” intoned a commentator on Fox News. He was merely amplifying what the authors of the fake video intended, turning the limelight on a politician’s supposed physical vulnerabilities.

Yet probably the most baleful impact of this phenomenon is the long-term damage it could inflict on the overall politics of a country. For why would a talented young woman or man wish to enter political life if all she or he can expect is constant hatred and insults based on fabrication? Fake news could amplify a vicious circle from which democracies already suffer: an increasingly shallow pool of recruits, deterring those with unique or different talents from entering political life.

Either way, the idea that in a perfectly open media market, truth will prevail may have been disproven: fake viral stories outperform real news almost every single time. The cost to our democracies is already being felt.

This piece features in Prospect's new cyber resilience supplement