Hugh Linehan: Does the fake-news debate ask the right questions?

Perhaps you shouldn't believe everything you've heard about disinformation

Fake news: the idea has become accepted that civil society is being damaged by a flood of deliberately misleading information, but is it? Photograph: Getty

Fake news: the idea has become accepted that civil society is being damaged by a flood of deliberately misleading information, but is it? Photograph: Getty

 

It doesn’t take long these days for novel concepts to become truisms. One example is the phenomenon variously known as “disinformation” or “fake news”. In less than a decade, it has moved from a marginal concern to the subject of intense scrutiny by thousands of academic researchers, well-endowed foundations and, of course, journalists (guilty as charged). As a result, the idea has become accepted that civil society is being damaged by a flood of deliberately misleading information, distributed on digital platforms, which corrodes trust, increases polarisation and threatens democracy.

It’s about time, then, to turn the camera around and take a look at this new discipline and the assumptions which underlie it. An article in the September edition of Harper’s magazine does exactly that. The writer, Buzzfeed reporter Joseph Bernstein, is not impressed by what he sees in the three interlinked pillars of the knowledge economy - universities, think tanks and the media - that he calls Big Disinfo.

Not everyone will agree with everything he says, but his critique is a necessary corrective to what has become an entrenched received wisdom.

Bernstein points out that, while they may appear diametrically opposed, Big Tech and Big Disinfo both have a vested interest in maintaining the idea that Facebook, Google and the rest wield unprecedented powers of persuasion over their users. Through the magic of data and algorithms, they can precisely target specific groups of people with messages crafted to perfectly match those people’s demographic and psychological profiles. This is what every Facebook sales rep is trained to tell potential advertisers, and it also underpins much analysis of the role of companies such as Cambridge Analytica in recent elections.

But is it actually true? Bernstein points to the 1950s (the article is US-focused, although its themes are universal), when claims made by the “hidden persuaders” of Madison Avenue that they could shape consumer desires and behaviour were taken literally by critics who feared the potential of such techniques for brainwashing. As we now know, the actual effects of mass-media advertising were much cruder and the results far less assured than the sales pitch would have had you believe.

A more modern version of the same sort of snakeoil is peddled by Big Tech when it sells “attention” to advertisers, argues Bernstein, quoting former Google head of public policy Tim Hwang.

“An ‘illusion of greater transparency’ offered to ad buyers hides a ‘deeply opaque’ marketplace, automated and packaged in unseen ways and dominated by two grimly secretive companies, Facebook and Google, with every interest in making attention seem as uniform as possible,”  he writes.

“This is perhaps the deepest criticism one can make of these Silicon Valley giants: not that their gleaming industrial information process creates nasty runoff, but that nothing all that valuable is coming out of the factory in the first place.”

The unpleasant views of people

One doesn’t have to agree with Bernstein’s thesis – that much of the panic over disinformation is down to the fact that educated elites are no longer protected from the unpleasant views of people they previously would never have met (although that, too, has a ring of truth) – to accept his central proposition: framing “disinfo” as the problem to be addressed, whether through stronger regulation, new legislation or some other constraints on tech companies, risks over-simplifying what is in reality an interlocking series of social, cultural, political and technological issues.

“Because the standards of the new field of study are so murky, the popular understanding of the persuasive effects of bad information has become overly dependent on anecdata about ‘rabbit holes’ that privilege the role of novel technology over social, cultural, economic, and political context,” writes Bernstein, who cites a number of studies which criticise the absence of solid data on the prevalence and reach of disinformation and a failure to establish common definitions for important terms.

Not surprisingly, the field of disinformation studies is led by institutions with skin in the game. Media scholar Jack Bratich has described it as a “war of restoration” fought by traditional gatekeepers buffeted by technological disruption and populist revolt. That, too, is simplistic, but it does expose a troubling fact; an increasing synergy between disinformation studies and the tech companies themselves, in joint projects part-funded by Facebook and Google. These are a win-win for both sides: the researchers get funding and relevance; the tech companies get academic and quasi-scientific affirmation of the power of their products.

And everyone is seen to be doing something about something, even if it’s the wrong something, according to Bernstein: “It turns a huge question about the nature of democracy in the digital age – what if the people believe crazy things, and now everyone knows it? – into a technocratic negotiation between tech companies, media companies, think tanks, and universities.”

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