Democracy is drowning in fake news. This is the latest reassuring conclusion drawn by those on the losing side of 2016, from Brexit to the US elections to the Italian referendum.
Apparently, all these earnest, honest and unfashionably rational grownups are losing elections because of a dangerous epidemic of fake news, internet memes and funny YouTube videos. For this crowd, the problem is not that the Titanic of democratic capitalism is sailing in dangerous waters; its potential sinking can never be discussed in polite society anyway. Rather, it’s that there are far too many false reports about giant icebergs on the horizon.
"The problem is not fake news but a digital capitalism that makes it profitable to produce false but click-worthy stories."
Hence the recent surfeit of misguided solutions: ban internet memes (proposed by Spain’s ruling party); establish commissions of experts to rule on the veracity of news (a solution floated by Italy’s antitrust chief); set up centres of defence against fake news while fining the likes of Twitter and Facebook for spreading them (an approach suggested by German authorities).
This last proposal is a great way to incentivise Facebook to promote freedom of expression – the same Facebook that has recently censored a photo of the nude statute of Neptune in the centre of Bologna for being too obscene! A tip for authoritarian governments: if you want to get away with online censorship, just label any articles you do not like as fake news and no one in the west will ever complain about it.
Will the fake news crisis be the cause of democracy’s collapse? Or is it just a consequence of a deeper, structural malaise that has been under way for much longer? While it’s hard to deny that there’s a crisis, whether it’s a crisis of fake news or of something else entirely is a question that every mature democracy should be asking.
Our elites are having none of it. Their fake news narrative is itself fake: it’s a shallow explanation of a complex, systemic problem, the very existence of which they still refuse to acknowledge. The ease with which mainstream institutions, from ruling parties to thinktanks to the media, have converged upon “fake news” as their preferred lens on the unfolding crisis says a lot about the impermeability of their world view.
The big threat facing western societies today is not so much the emergence of illiberal democracy abroad as the persistence of immature democracy at home. This immaturity, exhibited almost daily by the elites, manifests itself in two types of denial: the denial of the economic origins of most of today’s problems; and the denial of the profound corruption of professional expertise.
The first type manifests itself whenever phenomena like Brexit or Donald Trump’s electoral success are ascribed primarily to cultural factors such as racism or voter ignorance. The second type denies that the immense frustration many people feel towards existing institutions stems not from their not knowing the whole truth about how they operate but, rather, from knowing it all too well.
Blinded by these two denials, policymakers prescribe more of what alienates voters in the first place: more expertise, more centralisation, more regulation. But, since they can’t think in terms of political economy, they inevitably end up regulating the wrong things.
The moral panic around fake news illustrates how these two denials condemn democracy to perpetual immaturity. The refusal to acknowledge that the crisis of fake news has economic origins makes the Kremlin – rather than the unsustainable business model of digital capitalism – everyone’s favourite scapegoat.
But isn’t it obvious that no amount of foreign interference – by Russia or any other government – could produce viral news at scale? There have always been crazy movements (remember Lyndon LaRouche?) that lived and breathed fake news. What they lacked was not the political and financial cover from Russia but, rather, today’s powerful digital infrastructure, lavishly subsidised by online advertising, for making their crazy theories go viral.
The problem is not fake news but the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives.
To recast the fake news crisis this way, however, would require the establishment to transcend one of their denials and dabble in the political economy of communications. And who wants to acknowledge that, for the past 30 years, it has been the political parties of the centre-left and centre-right that touted the genius of Silicon Valley, privatised telecommunications and adopted a rather lax attitude to antitrust enforcement?
The second type of denial turns a blind eye to the corruption of today’s expert-based knowledge. When thinktanks gladly accept funds from foreign governments; when energy firms fund dubious research on climate change; when even the Queen – what a populist, she – questions the entire economics profession; when the media regularly take marching orders from PR agencies and political spin doctors; when financial regulators and European commissioners leave their jobs to work on Wall Street – could anyone really blame the citizens for being sceptical of “experts”?
It only gets worse when charges of fake news come from the media, which, due to the dismal economics of digital publishing, regularly run dubious “news” of their own. Take the Washington Post, that rare paper that claims to be profitable these days. What it has gained in profitability, it seems to have lost in credibility.
Having recklessly described many serious online outlets as Russian propaganda – based in part on a report by the anonymous organisation PropOrNot – it has recently warned about damaging Russian cyberattacks on a power grid in Vermont (in a report followed in other media outlets, including the Observer). It seems that those attacks didn’t happen and that the Washington Post didn’t even bother to check with the grid operator. Apparently, an economy ruled by online advertising has produced its own theory of truth: truth is whatever produces most eyeballs.
To hear professional journalists complain about this problem without acknowledging their own culpability further undermines one’s faith in expertise. Democracy may or may not be drowning in fake news, but it’s definitely drowning in elite hypocrisy.
Caught between the two denials, the elites will never stop searching for innovative solutions to the problem of fake news – much as they never stopped searching for innovative solutions to climate change. The two issues do have a certain similarity: just as climate change is the natural byproduct of fossil capitalism, so is fake news the byproduct of digital capitalism.
It won’t take long for some genius policy entrepreneur, fed up with the authoritarian nature of current proposals, to unleash the genius of free markets on this problem. Why not, say, establish a post-truth emissions trading scheme, where news organisations could trade their government-issued fake news permits? Ridiculous, yes; ineffective, yes – but the scheme would surely receive major social innovation prizes.
The only solution to the problem of fake news that neither misdiagnoses the problem nor overpowers the elites is to completely rethink the fundamentals of digital capitalism. We need to make online advertising – and its destructive click-and-share drive – less central to how we live, work and communicate. At the same time, we need to delegate more decision-making power to citizens – rather than the easily corruptible experts and venal corporations.
This means building a world where Facebook and Google neither wield much clout nor monopolise problem-solving. A formidable task worthy of mature democracies. Alas, the existing democracies, stuck in their denials of various kinds, prefer to blame everyone but themselves while offloading more and more problems to Silicon Valley.