Myth #25: Fake news is a real problem.
Myth: Digital media have become, in the last few years, a space for the circulation of all sorts of false information. Ill-intentioned social and political actors have strategically used disinformation campaigns, disguised as mainstream news, to promote untruthful or incorrect ideas distorting public debates by made-up evidence.
Busted: As digital media and online spaces become crucial arenas for public debate, online misinformation is becoming a serious societal concern. Yet, the notion of ‘fake news’ is a very bad label for this phenomenon and misleads our societal responses rather than guiding them. By now everything can be called ‘fake news’ and the term is routinely used by politicians to identify reporting they disagree with. We should thus be wary of this notion: Fake news is an extremely vague term that has been used to refer to phenomena as diverse as real news, satire, parody, fabrication, manipulation, click-bait, conspiracy theories and covertly sponsored contents. In the absence of a strict definition, the notion lends itself to be used by political and social actors as a rhetoric weapon to discredit opposing sources of information. Also, while fake news is supposed to be a recent problem, connected to the advent of digital media, its vague connotation of ‘biased information influencing public debate’ makes it indistinguishable from traditional propaganda.
Heralding a ‘post-truth era’, the notion presupposes a simplistic distinction between true and false, denying the very essence of journalistic mediation whose value is not only measured by the correspondence to the reported facts, but by the capacity to make complex issues readable for a distracted public opinion. Finally, and most importantly, the label implies that ‘fake news’ resemble traditional news and that their main objective is to induce credulity. This is sometimes but not always the case: much misinformation is published in satirical pages that do not hide their untruthfulness; or by news outlets that play out front their ideological biases; and often is nothing but a catchy title used to lure readers into clicking on banners or opening pages.
While some online misinformation is indeed meant to trick its readers into believing it (such as strategic disinformation campaigns), this is rarely the only or its main purpose. Rather than its fakeness, the speed with which it spread and the distraction that it produces are the birthmark of this type of information that should rather be called ‘junk news.’ Just as junk food, digital misinformation is consumed because it is addictive, not because it is believed to be informative or intellectually nourishing. To be sure, shifting the attention from falsity to diffusion and distraction does not make the threat of junk content less relevant. Quite the contrary, it suggests that these contents are all the more dangerous because they cannot be defused simply by debunking them.
Truth: The notion that “fake news” is the main menace to online public debate is itself a sort of “fake news”. The threat of digital misinformation consists in the systemic degradation of public debate, produced by the acceleration of attention cycles and the inflation of information agendas. Most fake news contents are in fact “junk news”, which does not make them less dangerous, but more difficult to debunk.
Source: Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Benjamin Green, Spreadable Media (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Tommaso Venturini, From Fake to Junk News, the Data Politics of Online Virality, in Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, and Evelyn Ruppert (eds.), Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights (London: Routledge, 2019).