Fake news are the alarm of the last few years. A BBC survey, conducted in 18 countries, revealed that 78% of the interviewed feels worried because of the spreading of misinformation. The collateral problem is the internet regulation, as the very same survey also shows that 58% of the people is against a government control of the web, the alleged hotbed of evil.
Those results might seem contradictory, but not to everyone. On the other hand we could say that even the “traditional” media, radio, TV, newspapers (when will the internet be recognized as traditional as well?) mystify what’s really going on. The scariest part is probably that, in the USA, 62% of the people uses social networks as the only source of information, as Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow of the New York University found out in their research.
Truths and lies are everywhere, in every media. It’s not the tool, is the use that we make of it. Manipulation and propaganda are as old as the world, the difference with fake news is that the first two are much more intelligent and subtle. They never say that something happened when it didn’t, they instill doubts and act on sensations and feelings. So the deceive can’t be totally proven. For example, during the Cold War, the United States establishment played with the fear of communism: do this, don’t do that or the Soviets will infiltrate the system and ruin it from the inside. It was all about strategy.
Another fine technique is the misinterpretation of data. Numbers don’t lie, sure, but can be read in multiple ways. We always see that when it comes to employment. A government X may brag that there are more jobs, an opposition Y may reply that the percentage of unemployment is the same, because also the population grew up. Is it a lie? No, but somehow it all ends up labeled as fake news, even when is not the case.
The speed of information is another factor. Journalists feel the pressure of being the first to release news, so in the rush towards “glory” too often a proper double check is missing. Still, we can classify as bona fide mistakes (most of the times). Is nothing professional, of course.
Fake news include fraud and malice, though. They are totally invented and justified by those who share them because they look credible, it doesn’t matter the reality. It’s not a coincidence that the Oxford Dictionary stated that “post-truth” was the word of the year 2016.
But the real question, in the end, is: do fake news have an actual role in influencing elections, like Donald Trump or Brexit? Or is it just an easy scapegoat to divert attention from personal responsibilities and social and cultural issues?
The sad fact is that fake news hardly move votes or consensus. They just give the reader what he or she wants to read, if you believe them is just because deep inside you already had the same thoughts. You hate immigrants? So you look for a confirmation of your ideas and if the news turns out to be false, well, someone else somewhere else is maybe doing it. That goes for everything, vaccines, the church, the police, Muslims, Jews, Israel, Palestine. Or Hillary Clinton. They said she was financing Isis, those who believed it wouldn’t have voted for her anyway.
That’s why we read the same newspaper or use news collectors, which choose for us basing on our taste. That’s why, on another level, we feel reassured by a predictable end in a movie or a book, why we enjoy comedians catch-phrases and ask for the old classics at a concert. It’s hard to question the few certainties we have.
It takes more than fake news to alter a strengthened balance.