There are lies, damn lies, and then there’s fake news. Manipulating the facts for political gain is as old as politics itself, but due to the rise of social media and search engine algorithms false stories can now spread like wildfire. In the run-up to the US presidential election, more people on Facebook engaged with fake news than they did with fact-checked media outlets. And according to a study by Stanford University, fabricated news items favouring Donald Trump were shared 30 million times during the campaign. In the recent French elections, a quarter of the political stories shared on Twitter were based on deliberate misinformation. Fake news was even broadcast live on television during the second-round debate, when Marine Le Pen alluded to a false online story that her rival Emmanuel Macron had an offshore bank account in the Bahamas.
Welcome to the world of ‘alternative facts’, where conspiracy theories, false claims and dodgy statistics proliferate. This phenomenon doesn’t just undermine the work of the mainstream media: it may have devastating consequences for democracy itself. Our system depends on citizens making electoral decisions based on facts. What happens when people don’t know what to believe? Fake news – often linked to Russian interests – has become an increasingly effective instrument of propaganda to create chaos and weaken the public’s trust in democratic institutions.
Can anything be done to combat the new post-truth politics? Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are hosting, propagating and monetising ‘clickbait’ stories. Will they eventually come to acknowledge that they are no longer neutral platforms directing traffic to news sites and admit that they are media organisations with all the responsibilities that implies?