Fake News and Our Real Problems

The American electorate enjoyed a bountiful crop of news reports and Congressional hearings this fall regarding fake news spreading through Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Politicians joined with journalists and scholars from across the political spectrum to chide these platforms for their role in spreading disinformation. No longer was social media the tool that had helped to spark the Arab Spring and launch the Black Lives Matter movement. In spreading fake news, these platforms had become an affliction for democracy.

To be sure, communication tools and democratic practices have long co-evolved in complex ways that cannot be easily untangled in this essay. Yet the current conversation surrounding fake news, social media platforms, and democracy shows clear deficits. For one, worries about disinformation on social media arise from a relatively modern belief that democracy needs informed voters. While the informed voter theory of democracy might provide a frame to criticize platforms, it doesn’t have much purchase in explaining what happened in the 2016 election. Indeed, by focusing on the spread of fake news on social media, more fundamental issues in American democratic practice have gotten overlooked.

As Professor Michael Schudson has put it, American civic life has long been on a “quest for a language of public life that reconciles democracy and expertise.” In this essay I will argue that we need to redirect attention to the institutions of governing and away from criticisms of institutions of voice.

To fully appreciate this argument, it helpful to understand first where demands for information fit into conceptions of democracy.

Democracy Is Rooted In Demands for Information

Modern conceptions of democracy place a heavy premium on information. Voting is central feature of democracy because it ties the electorate with representatives. Through this mechanism, citizens put into place elected officials that are then expected to translate constituent preferences into public policy. In turn, this folk theory of democracy demands that citizens keep informed of their representatives’ actions so that when agendas no longer align, the representatives is replaced.

Yet this collective story about democracy is a creature from a specific time in American history, the Progressive era. From the late 1890s to the 1920s, a series of political shifts occurred just as the mass-produced newspaper expanded into national markets to help usher in a now dominant criterion for democracy.

From the very founding of the United States until the late 1890s, individuals weren’t expected to make rational choices when voting. Not surprisingly, the press was explicitly partisan. By the mid-19th century, newspapers and political parties were engaged in an intimate dance. Parties provided the capital to start or sustain local newspapers, and in turn, the press was the voice of the party. When it came time to vote, newspapers would print ballots already filled out, votes were public, and if elected, voters would receive patronage in the form of jobs and other compensation.

Horace Mann’s description of the 1848 election gives us a taste of that era: “The press showered its sheets over the land, thick as snow-flakes in a wintry storm. Public and private histories were ransacked, to find proofs of honor or proofs of dishonor; political economy was invoked; the sacred names of patriotism, philanthropy, duty to God, and duty to man, were on every tongue.”

By the 1890s, that world was on the wane. The older system of political organization and favors were swept away. Civil service was reformed, and patronage was eroded, leading to more bureaucratic forms of government and heightened calls for rationalism in political processes. The expansion of government functions and the proliferation of agencies at all levels opened up more opportunities for policy differentiation, which lead parties to publish policy platforms for the first time.

Voting also became a private affair. Louisville, Kentucky was the first U.S. government to adopt the Australian ballot in 1888. Just four years later, 32 states had made the move to secret ballots. American civic culture changed because voting turned personal. Citizens reacted as one would expect: there was a new demand for information about politics so that choices could be made.

Simultaneously, newspapers expanded their reach to become truly national endeavors. The number of journalists expanded with the rise of national papers, leading the industry to professionalize. Because journalists wanted to establish their own legitimacy and newspaper owners wanted to capture more readers, an ethic objectivity was increasingly adopted.

By the 1920s, democracy took on a new dimension that relied heavily on new forms of knowledge, especially the national newspaper. Michael Schudson, a scholar of journalism, summed it when he noted that “The model citizen, in the reform vision, would be disciplined enough to register, educated enough to read, thinking enough to choose candidates with little or no party guidance, and docile enough to leave many matters to the experts.”

Why Social Media, Informed Voters, and Democracy Are Intertwined

The informed citizen model provides an important pillar on which American democratic legitimacy is built. This ideal also helps to explain current worries about fake news, as well as an earlier anxiety about the relationship between platforms and democracy. In 2014 and 2015, scholars like Jonathan Zittrain, Zeynep Tufekci, and Paul Brewer weren’t worried about the presence of fake news as much as they were concerned about how information was presented in the feeds and search results of users.

During the 2010 election season, researchers at Facebook ran a series of tests that showed users an “I Voted” sticker at the top of their site. Then, the authors connected voter turnout data with their own information on who was shown the sticker to find that “users who received the social message were 0.39% more likely to vote than users who received no message at all.” The evidence was unmistakable and statistically significant; Facebook could shift votes.

Never mind that rain decreases election turnouts by about 0.8 percent; scholars and journalists used this study as a jumping off point for reports about our democratic demise. One strain of these narratives focused on Facebook since they had the power to curate your News Feed based on the wedge issues that you cared about, pushing you to vote. In the other line of apprehension, Google’s executives were made the villains since they could decide which candidate is best for us if they tinkered with the search results. Countless scenarios were imagined, and in each the sentiment was similar. Platforms had the power to change the flow of news and undermine a true political conversation, thus tipping the election.

The 2017 narrative about fake news relies on a similar appeal. Fake news taints the deliberation process, muddying the pristine information ecosystem that is needed to sustain democracy. Only those who are properly informed of the issues can vote correctly, and as a corollary, those that voted incorrectly are clearly uninformed.

That Donald Trump’s victory seems to have come out of nowhere furthered this suspicion. In the days leading up to the vote, many on both the left and the right believed that Clinton would win. The Princeton Election Consortium predicted Clinton had a 95 percent chance of winning. Yet when the results came in, the tenor had changed. One Washington Post headline captured the sentiment: “Donald Trump wins the presidency in stunning upset over Clinton.” Something was lurking in places that very few had accessed, and it tainted the entire democratic enterprise. That something was fake news.

But the Facebook fake news problem has been revised significantly from the early, wild predictions. In one widely shared report just after the election, BuzzFeed found that fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top genuine election stories. Election content from the major outlets easily outpaced fake election news in the months before the vote, the study uncovered. Then, as the election drew closer, fake content on Facebook skyrocketed and surpassed the content from major news outlets, according to BuzzFeed. Yet the truth was far different. As Facebook officials recently testified before Congress, the actual amount of fake news “equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004 percent) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”

Moreover, there isn’t good evidence that 2016 was the election of social media. Trump supporters largely got their news from Fox News. Clinton voters, on the other hand, didn’t coalesce around any one single source. As Pew noted, “The digital news publishers that played prominent roles in the campaign did not appear to serve as main news sources for either Trump or Clinton voters.”

While it has been widely reported that 62 percent of U.S. adults, a majority, now get their news from social media, the statistic is hugely misleading as well. When you look at the report where this information is sourced, social media is the least likely source among all of the other potential sources for people to get their news. People get their news from all kinds of sources, including newspapers, the radio, local news, cable news, and websites.

Perhaps social media provides the platform for political deliberation. Again, surveys find that it is rare for users to discuss, comment, or post about politics. Only about 9 percent of social media users do this consistently, while nearly seven-in-ten indicate they hardly ever or never engage in politics online. Those who do go online to discuss politics are nearly guaranteed to be more partisan and thus unlikely to change their position. Social media networks don’t seem to be as ideologically homogeneous as some have worried, meaning that people tend to confront other perspectives quite often. Instead, most political conversations arise in casual settings with acquaintances.

What people do online is engage in the pointless babble that is so often derided. They go online to express sociability and maintain bonds, not debate politics. Snapchat isn’t built on political rants, it is built on videos and pictures of family, pets, and the sweet banality of daily life. Much more social media is like this than we tend to imagine.

Where Social Media Fits in Democracy as Practiced

Given how many years these tools have been available, it is a bit paradoxical to think social media is such an imminent threat to democracy. Washington does show characteristics of being dysfunctional, but as Jonathan Rauch has detailed the culprit is well meaning reform efforts that have dismantled our intricate, informal system of political intermediation. For years, these informal systems worked to hold politicians accountable to one another, but intermediaries’ influence has been on the wane, pushing politicians, activists, and voters to be become more individualistic in their aims and ultimately unaccountable. Communications tools have opened a space for new voices to add items the agenda, but the fundamental tension that Schudson highlighted almost two decades ago still remains. We still need a “public life that reconciles democracy and expertise.”

Two recent examples help to illuminate what expertise means in the digital world. The USA Freedom Act, which halted parts of the bulk collection program that Edward Snowden unearthed, got passed because a group of dedicated advocates and industry groups used social networks and countless media outlets to bring about change. The bill did get compromised, but it hasn’t been reopened for negotiation. On the other hand, the issue of network neutrality has steadily become more vitriolic with every year. One could imagine a slightly different political landscape where the intense pressure was directed toward Congress to pass a law, not toward the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Indeed, it is striking that interest group pressure has squeezed the FCC, which is an outgrowth of the President and was never likely to change course. While the two different campaigns used social media to get out the message, the issues have been adjudicated in completely disparate ways, likely due to the breakdown in informal social intermediaries.

Sometimes disinformation will be spread on social media. Other times vitriolic language will accompany a changeover in policy position. These aren’t problems for democracy. Instead, when institutions cannot direct these concerns, and solve them, that is a problem for democracy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.