Table of Content
2. News Consumption on the Internet
3. The Problem of Fake News
4. Challenges of Internet Regulation
Events in during the past decade have demonstrated that social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are changing the way individuals consume and share news. News stories can be distributed across borders and discussed by people around the world within minutes. One example includes news of the protests in the Middle East that spread through the social media networks Twitter and Facebook. Situations like this demonstrated how posted stories, photos and videos could immediately attract world-wide attention and how social media platforms can support news production and diffusion. Indeed, the spread of news on social media has become a phenomenon of increasing social, economic and political magnitude (Lee & Ma, 2011, p. 331).
Recently though, the proliferation of fake news on social media has been subject of an intensive international discussion. During the U.S election season of 2016, Facebook users learned that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump or that Bill Clinton had raped a 13-year- old. Both stories and many others were totally fabricated (Lee, 2016). The problem, experts say, is that fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion (Tavernise, 2016).
The main purpose of this paper is to take a closer look at the problem of fake news and to evaluate if regulations of any kind could have a positive impact. The two following questions will be front and center:
1) What are the primary challenges to Internet regulation in general and fake news in particular?
2) What are possible paths to resolutions to those challenges?
In order to analyze those questions, this paper will first address the consumption of news online and the role social media in particular. In a second step, the subject of ‘fake news’ will be introduced. The following chapter will take a look at the theoretical background and problems when it comes to regulations of online content. Then, those problems and possible solutions will be discussed in connection to the chosen example of fake news. Lastly, the results will be summarized and a conclusion will be drawn. Overall, it should be noted that the challenges described in this paper relate exclusively to political news and cannot be generalized across all subcategories of news. The discussion will focus primarily on the United States. This can mainly be justified due to their political and economic dominance on the world stage. Furthermore, major Internet companies, for instance Facebook, Twitter and Google, are all based in the United States. Finally, the recent presidential election has provoked an international debate and offers a great basis for further analysis.
2. News Consumption on the Internet
In this chapter will discuss the consumption of news on social media. The referenced data will mainly focus on the U.S. adult population, since the chosen example of fake news will be described largely in context of the U.S. election in 2016. This, however, does not exclude that the subject of fake news is not being raised in other countries as well.
The number of people consuming their news in form of print newspapers or TV is steadily declining. As of early 2016, only 20 percent of the U.S. adult population often gets news from print newspapers. Compared with print, nearly twice as many adults often get news online, either from news apps or websites, on social media or both. Even though TV still continues to be the most widely used and preferred news platform, its audience is also shrinking. The changes can mainly be explained through demographics. Alternatively, the younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel & Shearer, 2016).
Thereby, social medial plays a crucial role in these trends. Social media users not only read their news online, they also participate in the spreading of news by sharing news stories, images or videos or discussing a news issue or event. In addition to that, a small number are also covering news themselves, by posting photos or videos of news events. This practice plays particularly a role in the breaking news events (Anderson & Caumont, 2016).
When taking both the total reach of a site and the proportion of users who get news on the site into account, Facebook is the obvious leader among the social media sites. According to a study conducted by Pew Research in 2016, roughly two-thirds of the U.S. adult population are members of the site and anon two-thirds of those members use it as a news source (Anderson & Caumont, 2016). This amounts to a total of 44 percent of the population over all (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). Next in the ranking are YouTube and Twitter (Anderson & Caumont, 2016).
3. The Problem of Fake News
This chapter will introduce the problem of fake news, particularly in context of the recent U.S. presidential election. In the beginning, it should be noted that fake news in the here presented context is not used synonymous with satire, as it is often the case in other academic literature. The term ‘fake news’ in this paper is primarily concerned with the spread of purposely incorrect information on the Internet.
In November 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its international word of the year: post-truth. It is defined it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The dictionary’s editors explained, that the word had gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary (Lynch, 2016).
This announcement happened only a couple days after the U.S. presidential election and during a time where the term ‘fake news’ dominated the headlines in the elections’ aftermath (Lynch, 2016). In general, the definition of fake news is broad and not all these stories are invented from whole cloth. Some are better described as ‘highly distorted clickbait’, containing some facts repackaged into extraordinary falsehoods (Oh & Vongkiatkajorn, 2016). But framing the issue solely in terms of lying might actually underplay the issue. For a better understanding, one can further distinguish lying from deception. Somebody who lies is deliberately saying what he or she believes to be false with the intention of deceiving others. However, one can deceive others without lying, for example through silence at a key moment. In turn, one can lie to others without deceiving. That may be because the other is skeptical and does not believe the lie, but it may also be because what was intended as a lie is inadvertently true. This may suggest that deception occurs when someone is actually caused to believe what is false. As philosophers put it, although ‘deception’ is a ‘success term’, it is only halfway there. Deception can happen even without false belief: One can simply lack knowledge without having a false belief. It is enough to confuse someone, so he or she does not know what to think. In other words, people can be deceived not only by believing what is false, but by not believing what is true (Lynch, 2016).
Through the use of social media the spread political misinformation online has become far easier. The writers of these so-called fake news stories often do not care whether or how many people really believe each specific story. It is enough to just confuse parts of the public, so that they do not know what is actually true. This kind can also be described as a form of deception (Lynch, 2016). Another tricky issue states the fact that it is not easy to draw the line between articles that are totally fake and articles that are just highly misleading or based on careless reporting (Lee, 2016).
Many are also ensconced in their own information bubbles. It becomes harder to expect people to reject crazy claims based on the fact that they had not heard about them before, because chances are they already have heard about them or similar stories from the sites that tend to confirm their preconceived notions. Another reason all this matters concerns people’s attitude towards evidence and truth itself. Faced with so much conflicting information, many people are prone to think that everything is biased, everything conflicts, so why even bother to look for credible information (Lynch, 2016).
Another crucial point to consider is the fact that the Internet has broken down the traditional distinction between professional mainstream news and amateur news-gathering. Through the power of the Internet, the ‘Denver Guardian’, a fake news site designed to look like a real Colorado newspaper, can reach just as many people as established news organizations like the Denver Post or the New York Times (Lee, 2016). When it comes to the motivation of these writers of fake news stories, money and profit can be seen as a central driver. The money comes from ads, provided by the self-service ad technology of companies such as Google and Facebook. It is a business model where anybody can make a site and put ads on it. One can easily set up a business, create content, and once it goes viral, it drives traffic to their site (Ohlheiser, 2016).
There are a lot of variables that factor into exactly how much a viral fake news story can make for its creator. One can simply take Facebook shares as an indirect indicator of how widely viewed some of these sites might be and start to understand why fake-news sites targeting hyperpartisan audiences can be lucrative. Despite the variation in sophistication, such sites can be cheaply made. A fake news site does not need its audience to stay on the site for long, they just need people to spread their work. Among them, a growing group of Macedonian teenagers, who made headlines in the weeks after the U.S. presidential election of 2016. They saw fake news sites as an opportunity to make easy money from the gullibility of Americans (Ohlheiser, 2016).
Thus, it can be said that Facebook and Google have been a crucial vehicle for the spread of these fake stories. But as it was the case during the U.S. election 2016, it also did not hurt that political personalities connected to the Trump campaign were sharing those stories as if they were real. When prominent political personalities share a fake news story, it can increase the reach of that story and validate the source in the eyes of a potential audience. Thereby, the writers earn even more money (Ohlheiser, 2016).
Due to the recent events, the leaders of companies like Google and Facebook have become under bigger scrutiny to use their power ‘wisely’. After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Google announced that it was going to cut fake news sites off from access to its vast advertising network, depriving them of a key revenue source. Facebook quickly followed suit with its own ad network. As the Internet’s most popular news source, Facebook appears to have the biggest fake news problem (Lee, 2016).