Yesterday Facebook continued its crackdown on “fake news”. The social media behemoth has already blocked advertisers from running ads which link to stories marked as false by third-party fact-checking organizations. Now it is taking an additional step. If Pages repeatedly share stories marked as false, they will no longer be allowed to advertise on Facebook.

“False news is harmful to our community,” the company’s announcement states. “It makes the world less informed and erodes trust.”

Only a few months ago, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was more upbeat about how the world would cope with fake news. Shortly after the 2016 American election which put Donald Trump in the White House, he said, “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. … Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”

But many people are still convinced that fake news swayed the election. What evidence is there?

There are mountains of evidence that fake news exists. During the election campaign, it was particularly prominent.

The most notorious example is the Macedonian city of Veles, with a population 45,000, where at least 140 US politics websites were hosted, with domain names such WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. Almost all the content was aggressively pro-Trump and aimed at red-blooded conservatives.

Here’s how it worked. The English of the young men who ran the websites may not have been great, but it didn’t matter. They would steal a story from another site, place an outrageous headline on it, and share it on a Facebook page, some of which have hundreds of thousands of followers.

They were paid every time someone clicks on an advertisement. Hundreds of thousands of views are needed to get clicks, so the headlines had to be very alluring:

“Breaking: proof surfaces that Obama was born in Kenya — Trump was right all along”

“Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary”

“Oprah tells Fox News host ‘some white people have to die’. Her reasoning is unbelievable”

In short, the faker the better.

From a journalist’s point of view, this was a nightmare: out-and-out falsehood whirling through the internet and read by hundreds of thousands.

But the real question is whether fake news changes minds – and votes. And amazingly, in the light of all the publicity given to the issue, there is remarkably little proof of this.

Academic studies

Just a handful of academic studies have attempted to measure the impact of fake news – as opposed to the dissemination of fake news.  

In January 2017, Jacob L. Nelson, of Northwestern University, published an article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

He poured cold water on fake news panic. In the first place, the readership of internet fake news is tiny compared to the real news audience–just one-tenth. Readers also spent more time on average with real news than fake news.

And most significantly, readers of fake news do not exist in a filter bubble. Visitors to fake news sites visited real news sites just as often as visitors to real news sites visited other real news sites. In fact, sometimes fake news audiences visited real news sites more often.

Nelson concluded: “Is ‘fake news’ a fake problem?”

In another study, economists Matthew Gentzkow, of Stanford, and Hunt Allcott, of New York University, analysed the 2016 election. Their impression was that “it is unlikely that fake news swayed the election”.

In fact, what they found was that TV was far more important. Only 14 percent of readers relied on Facebook and social media. Only a tiny fraction of Americans viewed the most widely circulated hoaxes and only about half of those who saw a false news story believed it.

Finally, the latest study of fake news on the internet suggests that the sense of crisis is overblown.

A survey of 14,000 internet users in the UK, Britain, France, Poland, Germany, Italy and Spain found that fake news and biased search algorithms do not sway public opinion. William Dutton, of Michigan State University, says that readers tend to cross check what they read on the internet. Admittedly, the study was funded by Google, but its conclusions make sense.

“The results from our study show that internet users interested in politics tend to be exposed to multiple media sources, to discover new information, to be skeptical of political information and to check information, such as that seen on social media, by using search.These findings should caution governments, business and the public from over-reacting to alarmist panics.”

Fear and loathing

So why are the media so frightened of fake news?

Perhaps they have been caught up in a “moral panic”. This is a term used by sociologists to describe a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society – the Reds under the beds, perhaps, fluoride in the water, or the Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy.

Possibly, the elites of our society, especially in the mainstream media, are distressed that they are losing control of the levers of power. From their point of view, the ignorance and lies spread by fake news are threatening both democracy and legacy media. From their privileged position in the palace, it must seem like the French Revolution all over again: the internet sans culottes are storming the gates with their pitchforks, incomprehensible dialects and filthy clothes. 

It’s no wonder that the residents of the imperial palace have the jitters. The mainstream media is changing, and perhaps dying. Newspapers and magazines are closing as readers move to the internet to get their news.

But it’s not just a financial and technological issue. To some extent, outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN are to blame for the popularity of fake news. We live in a post-truth society where fake news flourishes, but the media has been undermining the notion of “truth” for years.

This has a long. long intellectual genealogy, but in the 1980s post-modernism emerged in British, American and Australian universities. The core idea of PoMo is that there are no fixed and unchanging truths; there are only perspectives, different images in a hall of mirrors.

Its cynicism quickly infected the intelligentsia and promoted scepticism about science, suspicion of authority, and hostility toward traditional institutions like the Church and the family.

These developments were applauded by the media as the ultimate freedom. If there is no truth, it was thought, we can reshape society, and even our bodies, according to our own theories and fantasies.

The unexpected Catch-22 of this intellectual trend took a while to surface. The intelligentsia thought that the business of reshaping society would be a progressive project. But then the sans culottes discovered how much fun it could be. Karl Rove, one of the neo-conservatives surrounding President George W. Bush, reputedly told a reporter. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Donald Trump was an early adopter of the post-truth philosophy. As a much younger Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.

No doubt the drudges in the Macedonian fake news factories felt the same.

The empire strikes back

Paradoxically, the response of the leading representatives of the mainstream media to the “fake news crisis” has been to produce fake news of their own. Unlike the sans culottes, though, they are not in the business of spinning yarns and creating titillating headlines. On the contrary, they endlessly fact-check their stories. If you read an article in the New York Times, you can be reasonably sure that all the details are correct.

What is false is the balance and the disdain for opposing views. They create an air-tight bubble in which opponents are ridiculed as ignorant Lumpenproletariat. In the US, for instance, almost nothing in favour of Trump ever emerges on the front page of the New York Times – even though he still has a strong following outside the East Coast and California. In Australia, at the moment, cogent defences of the traditional family are rare in the Sydney Morning Herald as a plebiscite on same-sex marriage approaches.

This is the palace version of fake news. It is not boorish, ungrammatical, unsourced and salacious. But it is still fake. And as Facebook pointed out, “False news is harmful to our community. It makes the world less informed and erodes trust.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet