News or nonsense? Fake news and the threat to democracy

| OP-ED |

There has been a lot of discussion about ‘‘fake news’’ in current public debate, however only few identify
the substantial threat to our democracy. If we want to save democracy from incorrect and deceptive
information, we must seriously rethink ways of preventing the emergence and spread of fake news in
order to allow for enlightened understanding.

Although only recently debated, fake news is of all times. The distinction, however, lies in the
characteristics of the modern information age in which almost everyone enjoys online access and is able
to make and spread content. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter enable relatively
cheap and easy ways to propagate on a global scale. As a result, information and news rapidly spread
and affect public opinion. An accompanied development is the fading distinction between news, fake
news and advertisement. Not to mention the emergence of new technological threats such as the
leakage of information and cyberattacks. To quote Hillary Clinton: ‘‘Fake news can have real world

Before returning to the central argument, what exactly constitutes fake news? Especially over the last
one and a half year, fake news became a buzzword for describing both misinformation and
disinformation, as well as it is used for framing the established news media in particular ways. A primary
feature of fake news is that it does not rests on facts, rather on wrong, false or distorted information
with the aim of influencing public opinion and, to an increased extent, to make profits. That being said,
the majority of the people presumably heard of fake news before in the context of the 2016 US
presidential elections or the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash. And let us not forget US president Donald
Trump shutting down a CNN reporter for ‘‘being fake news’’.

As Robert Dahl, one of the most influential twentieth century political scientists, famously argued,
enlightened understanding is one of the five criteria for the ideal democracy. Next to effective
participation, voting equality, agenda control and inclusiveness, Dahl emphasized the importance of
education and information for citizens to make choices that are in their best interests. More practical,
this entails freedom of speech, freedom of association and alternative sources of information. Thus,
enlightened understanding is about the equal opportunity to obtain information and to form opinions.
The entire political process of democracy is based on reliable information. With the large-scale and rapid
spread of fake news, this important foundation is being violated and, as a result, citizens are unable to
form well-considered opinions and make political decisions.

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant confirms that citizens are concerned with fake news. Based on their
research about the relationship between fake news and public opinion, they reported that 82 percent
of the 2400 respondents indeed find fake news threatening to democracy. In addition, the Dutch
website that informs citizens on ‘‘safe and smart use of (digital) media’’ reports that
companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter use algorithms to determine what content will be
displayed based on previous searches and likes. This means that some content remains out of sight,
while others are constantly displayed. They call this the ‘‘filter bubble’’. This one-sidedness of
information leads to the development of a less critical attitude which is so fundamental to the
functioning of democracy.

A final threat of fake news to democracy is its destabilizing capacity. Incorrect or deceptive information
often affects citizens trust in certain policies, governments or even in democracy as a whole. Tensions
can also arise between citizens themselves or be directed towards the media. I certainly do not argue
in favor of censorship, because that would undermine the freedom of the press. What I do argue,
however, is that the media is of underestimated value to democracy and that we, as citizens, must be
aware of the social situatedness of information. Information is never neutral, but always based on
certain world views. Only this critical awareness can compete against fake news.


Door: Demi Leakat – derdejaarsstudente Politicologie
Foto: Pixabay 2018

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