Disinformation, Fake News, & American Policy

What does the analysis of main fake news providers teach us about disinformation in American politics ?

L’Association des Jeunes Internationalistes publishes an article written by Guillaume Glaudel, current masters student in International Relations at Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas and Université Paris-Sorbonne. 

The world has experienced two or three important industrial revolutions according to scientists. They completely transformed societies, economies, and politics. Today some economists and professors evoke a new industrial revolution. This one involves digital tools: the 4.0 revolution. Indeed, the last thirty years innovation transformed our communication methods and we switched from the candlestick telephone to the iPhone 11 Pro which is more powerful than Nasa computers during Apollo 11. These new tools allow people to communicate with others all over the world but also enable huge economic progress through the dematerialization of money, wires, and stocks for example. New technologies empower the populations by giving them the opportunity to discover in real time what happened on the other side of the world.

Because sharing information becomes easier, the providers of information are proliferating. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or blogs enable everybody to create, modify and share information, which was traditionally produced by journalists exclusively. In this plenty of information it becomes always less convenient to flush out author’s bias but also to check the facts’ veracity. As a result, information can be used as a powerful tool of manipulation and might be employed in disinformation campaigns. These processes are very efficient and can even be compared to modern propaganda. By influencing public opinion they hope to put the government under pressure and to favor a political view rather than another. Moreover, many providers of fake news share their information on social media. Indeed, these platforms are easy and cheap to use and allow information to reach million or even billion of users. All the possibilities offered by these platforms and all potential goals of fake news providers can make difficult the analysis of the growing problem of disinformation in democracies. This can lead us to the following question: In the age of disinformation, why and how do the main fake news providers influence American politics?

This article refers to unsubstantiated or incorrect information intentionally spread as fake news or political disinformation. The leading hypothesis of this research is that fake news could aim at directly fulfilling political goals. Some actors could use fake news to defend their own interest, political agenda, and alter democracy. As such, the spread of political misinformation could participate to the growth of extremist movements and ideas. Indeed, the increase of skepticism towards news leads to a rise in the mistrust of the political system and political elites, which are often associated with democratic institutions. They induce a decrease in voter turnout and political participation in general, while favoring the growth of populist and anti-democratic parties. Fake news have a negative impact on the efficiency of our political system, insofar as they polarize the electors and compromises the possibilities of inter-parties dialogues. Because of its bipartisan system, the United States are especially vulnerable to the risk of paralysis linked to this rising polarization. On that regards, countering the spread of fake news should become a priority in the American democracy.

This article seeks to shed light on the different actors spreading fake news in the United States, by understanding their motivations and mode of actions. As such, it makes a distinction between actors pursuing economic goals and those fulfilling political ones. It relies on existing thesis and studies on this subject and opposes some of them to draw conclusions on their role and modes of action. All this information then leads to produce a diagnosis of the current situation and to propose active solutions to tackle the spread of political misinformation.


I. Disinformation in the American media ecosystem: analysis of main fake news providers

The analysis of the current spread of political disinformation within the American media can be approached in various ways. This paper proposes to focus on the main actors producing fake news, by analyzing their interests, their mode of action and therefore the efficiency of their action. This part allows to highlight the reasons why political misinformation is entrenched within the American policy.

Non-political fake news: the indirect influence of profit-maximizing actor

First, it might be argued that fake news are generated to maximize profits. This is the case for news providers, which share and incubate fake news to gain more visibility and visits and therefore increase their revenues (Burkhardt 2017, Bakir & McStay 2017, Alcott & Gentzkav 2017, Marwick & Lewis 2017). Private companies could also use fake news to defend their markets, in order not to lose revenues outcomes (Bernays 1945). On that respect, they can influence public opinion as well as politicians to advance their own agenda.

The desire to make profits and its influence on the American politics

One main theory about the reason why fake news are created relies on the desire of providers to generate profit (Burkhardt 2017, Bakir & McStay 2017, Alcott & Gentzkav 2017, Marwick & Lewis 2017). Indeed, the first sources of fake news are Internet sites designed to fulfill purely economic goals. They do not officially bear a political interest, but they favor certain candidates or statements because of they might generate more clicks and more funding. For example, publishing pro-Trump content generated more advertising revenue than pro-Clinton (Marwick & Lewis 2017). Indeed, such websites generate revenue each time a user visit their platform (Alcott & Gentzkow 2017). To attract online users, they use different strategies such as using emotional news stories with sensational headlines. Another tactic is to produce a catchy fake image (typically, a photo) that would be actively reposted in social media. Gupta et al. (2013) studied more than ten thousand tweets with URLs to fake images and found that 86% of them were re-tweets, whereas only about 14% of users involved in the dissemination of misinformation posted the original tweets. Even if primary goal of these websites is not political they have a huge impact on policy outcomes. Indeed when people are exposed regularly to an idea, they tend to trust it even if it is false according to the backfire familiarity effect (Nyan and Reifler, 2010). This principle is used in commercial publicity, as consumers are exposed multiple times to the same advertising.

Similarly, mass media amplifies conspiracy theories in the goal to attract clients and generate revenue. Channels can make documentaries about these conspiracy theories, or skim in the fear of immigration and propose documentaries about police patrols, which control U.S. boundaries. They indirectly participate to the exposure of fears and false information, which influence voters.


Fake news as parts of certain firm’s strategies

Fake news can also be shared by companies to defend their interests. Here the goal is not to directly collect money, but to make publicity and influence people`s beliefs in order to give people an incentive to buy the company’s product. This strategy was used by Lucky Strikes to bring women consumers to consume cigarettes. First he promoted cigarettes as healthy by paying medical authorities to spread false information. Then he developed the concept of “torches of freedom” to release women from the taboo they faced while smoking in public. This strategy was adopted by feminists at the Easter Sunday parade in 1929. Women who smoked cigarettes began a symbol of emancipation and freedom, and Tobacco companies doubled the size of their potential consumers. More dangerous. After Jacobo Arbenz Guzman’s election in Guatemala, he proposed to nationalize unoccupied lands. However the United Fruit Company was the landlord of most unoccupied lands. The company began a mass disinformation campaign to keep his land. The solution was to discredit democratic intention of the Guatemalan government. On that respect, they produced fake news depicting it as a communist threat for Guatemala.

They convinced universities, professor, lawyers, and US government to condemn expropriation as immoral and illegal. Prestigious newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Time, described Guatemala’s regime as a dangerous communist threat. The United Fruit Company, also sent anonymous reports on Guatemala to journalists, and to all Congress members. Finally, in June 1954, the CIA organized a coup d’état in Guatemala. Today, with lobbying, powerful companies continue to influence public opinion thanks to propaganda. We can think about Mosanto, or Health Care Insurance Companies, which lobby governments but also scientists to produce scientific works with conclusion, which fit their interests. Without the pressure of these companies on the federal government, we can assume different policy outcome. As an example, Clinton’s project on health care, was abandoned because of pressure. More importantly, misinformation can directly distort public policies as it is fabricated by giving policy markers inaccurate, or incorrect information. This is what lobbyists sometimes do.

It is however important to note that people are increasingly conscious and careful about firms’ strategies. Furthermore governments are aware of companies’ manipulations and developed regulations regarding publicity and lobbying (for example, lobby interventions and donations are regulated in the European Union through a transparency requirement).

Indeed, thinking that all misinformation providers are money-driven actors is quite unrealistic according to other theories. As Edward Bernays stated, the role of propaganda to control ideas and population is huge. Because we live in a democracy, people’s beliefs shape the political landscape, thus controlling population beliefs via news can be motivated by political purposes. For example high partisan media are primarily incubator and disseminator or disinformation. (Faris et al. 2017). They share fake news to advance their ideological agenda. Furthermore, the use of disinformation to manipulate public opinion is not a new phenomenon, radio and journals employed it during the World War, and after during the Cold War.

Political fake news: the rise of disinformation as a tool to promote an agenda

Second, fake news can be used to fulfill a political goal. Indeed, foreign nations can use fake news to defend their interests abroad (Mele et al 2017, Schusdon et al 1997, Ziegler 2017, Maréchal 2017). They try to favor policies, which preserve the interests of their country. High partisan media are also actors of fake news dissemination and incubation (Faris et al. 2017). They use disinformation to convince their readers, polarize the electorate and directly influence the political system. Finally, politicians themselves use fake news to be (re-) elected and defend their political view (Fritzet et al. 2004, Flynn et al. 2017). Trump is an example of them, exacerbating and using as a weapon the distrust of people in mainstream media (Guess et al. 2018).

Fake news from foreign countries, a real problem or a scapegoat ?

Foreign governments can also provide fake news. They spread disinformation and/or propaganda in order to achieve their agenda abroad (Mele et al 2017, Schusdon et al 1997). As an example, Russia spreads disinformation and saw discord in the 2016 U.S. elections, according to FBI, NSA, and CIA conclusions. Russia tried to influence Western public opinion by using disinformation “dezinformatsiya”. (Ziegler 2017, Maréchal 2017). To share disinformation abroad, Russia uses an army of bots. Thousand of bots on false twitter accounts use tweets, comments, likes, re-tweets, to influence and spread disinformation and mainly disentangle trust of voters in their governments. These mechanisms also modify news ranking and can place fake news on top Internet stories. This increases their visibility, can attract a new audience, and legitimate them by providing them an artificial “social approval”. But Russia is not the only foreign nation who used disinformation strategies to counter Western democracy, China, Iran and Venezuela, also use the same strategies. Their goal is often to counter democracy and promote authoritarian interest abroad. (Vanderhill 2013, Way 2015, Nocetti 2015, Lankina & Watanabe 2015). Spreading disinformation to influence a foreign sovereignty is not something new. For example, during the World War II, the British prime minister, Churchill organized a propaganda campaign to convince American public opinion to join the war (1940). This propaganda worked to influence public American opinion, and may be considered as an important factor, which lead to the American War entry. In the South, Japanese propaganda via Rose Tokyo radio shared information aiming at demoralizing American troops. Even if this campaign did not have an important impact, this would have had one on American policy if soldiers deserted because of fears provoked by Rose Tokyo.

Finally, foreign states using disinformation campaigns in Western countries make it more difficult to distinguish between authentic and false information (Diamond et al. 2016, Maréchal 2017, Richey 2017). Their action is therefore more powerful. Indeed it increases skepticism, beliefs in conspiracy theories, and mistrust of government, politicians and traditional media (renamed newspapers such as New York Times, Washington Post, etc…).

However, the spread of disinformation by foreign nations is limited in Western democracy. First because foreign nations disinformation campaigns are not focused on the U.S. especially. Indeed, Russia is most focused on near abroad, and China is most focused on the Asian area and on its own territory. Second, in Western democracies, most of the newspapers are providers of quality information. Thank to these newspapers, people have some other sources to double check facts and recognize fake news. People often provide multiple rationales to construct their opinions and do not strictly base them on facts. In that respect, fake news are most effective on the less educated people, because they tend to accord easier a blind and naïve confidence of what they read and usually do not double check. However, the proportion of less educated people in Western countries tend to decrease. Third, because the most easier way to spread disinformation is via social media, and because between 40 and 60% of adults in most developed countries, get information on social media, especially Facebook. Social media providers are engaged to regulate with algorithm and personnel the spreading of disinformation, incivility, and inappropriate posts. To reach this goal social media develop partnerships with regulators as Pennycook & Rand 2017; Pennycook et al. N.d.; Blair et al. N.d. show.

The rise of hyper partisan media

Highly partisan media spread disinformation, which support they political belief. According to Faris et al. 2017, highly partisan media are the first incubator and disseminator of fake news today. Faris described these providers as “combining decontextualized truths, repeated false hoods and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world”. These sites are for example Breitbart, the Daily Caller, The Gateway Pundit, the Washington Examiner, Infowars, Conservative Treehouse, and Truthfeed. According to Marwick & Lewis in 2017, they spread misinformation, rumors, conspiracy theories, and attack mainstream media. There is a clear distinction between right high partisan media news and mainstream news, but the difference between left high partisan media news and mainstream news have closer borders and far left is largely integrated in mainstream media discourse. This integration reinforced far right skepticism and mistrust about mainstream, and continued to reinforce their trust in far right high partisan media. Fake news generated by high partisan media increase political polarization, especially in the U.S.. As a consequence of this tendency; the parties are more ideologically divided in Congress than ever. (Bonica et al. 2013) The growth in polarization has seemingly supercharged political misinformation, leading to widespread partisan misperceptions and conspiracy theories that pollute public debate, and further intensify polarization. Moreover the effect of polarization, and of fake news incubated by partisan media have dramatically consequences. Indeed, it is very hard to convince people of the reality when there are exposed to fake news. Studies have demonstrated that in some cases the provision of correct information has no effect on policy preferences on controversial issues (e.g Kuklinski et al. 2000, Hopkins et al. 2018) or on evaluations of high-profile partisan candidate (Nyhan et al. 2019). In other words, people tend to only fulfill a directional goal, that is to say to comfort their actual political view.

The vote-maximizing goal and the use of fake news by politicians

Finally, fake news are dangerous for democracy because they can distort the content of public policy debates. For example; exaggerated perceptions about the generosity of U.S. federal welfare, foreign aid, and the number of immigrants in the country. Americans estimated that 31% of federal budget goes to foreign aid while the correct answer is less than 1%. Moreover effects of misperceptions at the individual level can aggregate into distortions in collective public opinion that likely affect policy and election outcomes. Many misperceptions are self generated, these distortions may be created and/or exploited by political elites, who often seek to promote false or misleading claims in order to promote their preferred policies, win (re) elections, or avoid accountability for their performance in office (Fritzet et al. 2004, Flynn et al. 2017). One other concern fact is the growing of skepticism about renowned news providers. There are qualified as elitists, lost one part of their previous audience, and in the age of market competition, they are bound to restrict their press budget. The information quality could be impacted. This is a vicious circle: if newspapers can increased the cost of their monthly subscription, they could loose even more clients and be more qualified as elitist. A public financing by government could partially solve the problem. However under Trump presidency, renowned newspapers have increasingly been discredited, described as “enemy of the people” which increases the lectors’ mistrust (Guess et al. 2018). That led to the proliferation of fake news and to the rise of high partisan media. That also led to the democratization of social media as news providers even if the regulation of false news is not completely efficient, and proliferation of misinformation is important (Ladd 2011).

In light of this analysis, the fact that fake news and disinformation are spread by multiple actors, to fulfill different goals cannot be ignored. However, this whole variety of parties and intentions have to the same effect: citizens are influenced, norms and institutional practices are called into question. Which impacts does disinformation have on our society and political system?

II. The multidimensional relation of fake news with the American democracy

This part goes deeper into the diagnoses of the American policy by directly considering the impacts of fake news on democracy, and therefore how these issues can be mitigated. Indeed, it reviews proposition which could help tackle the risk of fragilization of the democratic institutions.

The numerous impacts of political disinformation on democracy

A consequence of the rise of new technologies is that people can find plenty of articles and information on every topic on Internet and social media. Bakshy et al. 2015 and Barberá (2015) find that Facebook and Twitter users are exposed to a large panel of different point of view. This is the reason why many scholars hopes that this diversity of sources of information could have made public opinion more opened-mind as Boxell et al. 2017 support. They recognize that political polarization has increased last decades, however they stress that “the internet explains a small share of the recent growth in polarization” (p. 10612). While Internet in itself is not the cause of polarization, the rise of disinformation has played a large role in this phenomenon.

Polarization: the influence of fake news on preexisting biases

Psychology has proven that people tend to focus on things which reinforce their ideologies, in other words, they pursue a directional goal. Indeed, in some cases the provision of correct information has no effect on policy preferences on controversial issues or on evaluations of high-profile partisan candidate . In other words, voters tend to only fulfill their directional goal that is to say to comfort their actual political view. This increases the polarization of the electors, by making them more certain of their opinions and reducing the opportunities to reach compromises. Moreover, since Trump’s presidency, renowned newspapers have increasingly been discredited, described as “enemy of the people”, which raised readers’ mistrust . This facilitated the proliferation of fake news and also led to the democratization of social media as news providers even if their regulation of false news is not completely efficient, and if they face an important proliferation of misinformation . Trump’s declarations created a vicious circle which reinforces political polarization. The actual impeachment process is an example of the gap between the two parties, for the moment Republicans are very united as Democrats, this is a two fronts battle, where each Congressman fights for its own camp irrespective of what Trump did. This tendency has also been made possible because of the society tolerance for attacking someone because of his partisanship, on the contrary to gender or racial features, sexual orientation. On that respect, partisanship has become a new potent of social identity. This pattern is called “affective polarization” or “negative polarization” . This phenomenon represents a danger for peaceful democratic debates and threatens to undermine norms of civility. It also increases violence: on the one hand verbal abuses as in recent election campaign, and on the other hand physic violence, which calls into question the basis of our democracy and our social pact.

Majority parties have exploited their procedural and agenda-setting powers to attempt to shift policy toward the median majority party member (Aldrich & Rohde 2000, Cox & McCubbins 2007). As a response, minority party legislators exploited the high number of veto points in the American system of government (most notably, the filibuster rule in the Senate) to block legislative action, making it difficult for presidents to enact legislation under divided governments (e.g., Bond et al. 2015). This also led to a lack of control of co-partisan institutions on executive branch (Parker & Dull 2009, 2013). The Trump institutions shows the lack of control of the executive branch through President Trump, who routinely violates norms ruling the conduct of government officials which are vital to democratic governance (Nyhan 2017).

The risk of radicalization of ring-wing outlets

Despite the fact that polarization is a general phenomenon it takes particular forms on Republican information sources and websites. Indeed, the recent study of Benkler, Faris and Roberts in Network Propaganda, highlights that the right-ring part of the media spectrum experiences a “radicalization” rather than a polarization. Indeed they support the fact that the American media ecosystem is divided and asymmetric, with left-wing media close from mainstream media and the right-wing media evolving in an insular ecosystem, which favors the spread of rumor and hateful speech. Some websites driving this radicalization such as Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, Zero Hedge, and the Gateway Pundit, whose goals are apart from professional journalism. Such a tendency is not symmetric, insofar as the Huffington Post, a left extremist which is closer from Fox News than to Zero Hedge, or to the Gateway Pundit. The authors explain this disparity by the closeness of mainstream media such as the New York Times and the Washington from left-wing outlets, constraining them to operate under relatively professional norms of journalism such as objectivity and fact-checking to keep their readers. As a result, misinformation is also the result of the architecture of the media ecosystem, which increases polarization, especially on the right.

In a word, misinformation leads to the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories and to polarization. It compromises the quality of the public debate, by focusing it on issues which would probably not have been addressed otherwise.  

Protecting democracy without hurting its principles: the new challenge?

The previous considerations led to the conclusion that democracy is threatened by the spread of political disinformation. This part puts forward propositions which could diminish this impact within the American ecosystem. It emphasizes the existence of two main actors who could lead such a change: the government and press outlets.

The intervention of the government: the creation of a vicious circle?

Indeed, the first and most obvious solution to tackle fake news is to promote the development of a fair and serious press. This could be achieved by sensibilization campaigns, targeting children but also older person which tend to misuse Internet sources and to be vulnerable to fake news. Another option would be to sponsor the press, such as in other countries (France is an example). On that respect, information and news would be recognized as a common property and the press would not be primarily motivated by making profit, which, as highlighted here, plays a role in the spread of fake news. Indeed, clickbait topics would certainly be less frequent and a part of fake news economy would disappear. Furthermore, we can imagine that this money would allow the creation of professional journals to challenge conservative websites such as Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, Zero Hedge, and the Gateway Pundit and might reconstruct the absent center-right part of the media ecosystem. In fine, as in the liberal news ecosystems, right-wing outlets’ readers would access less biased sources, which would force all sources to strengthen their journalistic rules. Another benefit of sponsorship would be a diminution of the cost of subscription – or an exemption. The consumption of renowned newspaper would certainly increase and as a consequence more people would get an access to less biased information. Moreover, more people could rely on other sources to double check information and identify fake news. On that respect the sponsoring of the press could take multiple forms such as the funding of news providers directly, or the sponsoring of low-income households to subscribe to newspapers.

Fake and injurious content (linked to the polarization and radicalization of politics) could be moderated by a governmental organization. Such an initiative has already been taken in Germany, where if users of social media can report content as “unlawful”, which might lead to the obligation of the platform to suppress it. However, this moderation would be harder to implement in the U.S. Indeed, concerns based on the first amendment about the freedom of speech are certainly greater than those for regulation of internet content. On that respect, the public opinion should feed incoming political debates to determine where to draw the line between the different propositions.

Direct implication of traditional and online press outlets

Because a direct action of the state might be controversial, some solutions could also take the form of a renewal of journalistic norms, such as advocated by the authors of Network Propaganda. Indeed, according to the common definition of objectivity, mainstream media present all opposing points of views while covering an event, even if the debate is unbalanced. For example, articles on climate change which equally covered the points of view of agreeing and disagreeing scientists gave the illusion that the subject was controversial, while a proper scientific consensus was already reached. To some extent, object neutrality participates to mistrust in true information and enables the proliferation of fake news. While all points of view can be expressed, the proportion that they took in the debate has to be clearly underlined.

There is also a psychological dimension to fake news which must be taken into account. Indeed, Nyhan and Reifler proved in 2010 that familiar information tended to be considered as more accurate. As a result, exposing fake news before correcting them is counterproductive. Indeed, people who are exposed to fake news, even if they do not believe it at first sight, will face an unconscious impact. The best solution is to correct the false statement without exposing the fake stories. This is what Facebook’s actual policies highlight, insofar as identified fake news are now hidden under a black square to prevent people from seeing them if they are not willing to. On this regard, users are less exposed to unconscious repercussions.

All these solutions are complementary propositions, which might have a positive effect not only on the spread of political rumors but also on the American democracy as a whole.

Conclusion

There are many actors who spread fake news. If some are only motivated by the perspective of making money, others pursue political goals. In all cases, the impact on our democracy is huge. Because citizens have the right to vote, influencing their beliefs raises important questions about the efficiency of democracy. Indeed, if we people are influenced by fake news, and if the American government does not react by correctly informing citizens, democracy would turn into a plutocracy or aristocracy insofar as power would be hold by the rich or politics who can convey information. Polarization generated especially by high partisan media is an example of this influence on public opinion. Moreover, the foreign attempt to influence elections shows the direct threat of inaction. Finally, the politicians’ use of fake news is highly problematic insofar as it directly contributes to the rise of mistrust towards American policy. All these issues might result in an increase of the attractiveness of extremism movements such as populism.

Moreover, disinformation by increasing polarization affects directly our democratic system, for example by modify the political agenda. “Negative polarization” leads to the creation of new social norms according to which partisanship is a part of identity and becomes a feature of open discrimination. This could lead to physical violence and therefore undermine the roots of our democratic society. Indeed, this lack of respect for democratic roots also shows up in the political process though frequent violations of democratic and institutions rules by both parties, and especially by the majority – as it is to be observed under Trump administration. This results in non-cooperation between the House and Senate to pass bills, which blokes the institutional process and damages the political work of the majority. On that respect, polarization, radicalization and extremism can lead to a stagnation of democracy. Indeed, the democratic inefficiency is another argument of populism, which leads to a vicious circle opposing the core values of this political system. These consequences of misinformation underline the paradox of how freedom of speech and universal access to information might destroy democracy. According to scholars, we did not reach a tipping point yet, but an efficient answer by the government to fight misinformation is more than ever a necessity. This paper underlines some of the potential solutions to address this problem, among which the adoption of new forms of objectivity by outlets and the sponsorship of the government would require changes in the American public opinion. As regards a direct application of law on social media and Internet platforms, political debates should determine where to draw the line between protecting democracy and opposing its own roots.

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