“The confrontation between the information policy and the sharing policy explains the Fake News bug.”
Professor at Paris 3 University in Information and Communication Sciences, Divina Frau-Meigs is a specialist in media, content and risky behaviours. Member of the European Commission’s most recent high-level expert group on “fake news”, she is also the author of the book “Should we be afraid of fake news?”. In other words, Bug Me Tender could not have dreamed of a better interlocutor to answer a question that challenges us: Are “fake news” a bug of the unplanned reprogrammable dissemination?
Divina, the recent term "fake news" covers the contemporary realities of "hoax" and the post-truth, term appeared in 2016 in the English newspaper The Guardian, following the referendum on Brexit. The term also refers to older references, such as false news, propaganda or rumour, through other words such as falsehood, hoax, conspiracy... How to precisely define the "fake news" and perhaps we talk about the semantic bug?
Semantics are important because they are the meaning behind words. In France, as on the other side of the Atlantic, the need to find a new word arises because we are faced with a new reality: false that is true, but which is so decontextualized and taken out of its original source that we can make it mean what we want. In France, researchers recommend using the term “deinformation” (“déinformation”) and, for my part, I also use “mal-information”.
The inauguration ceremony of Donald Trump is a known example of “fake news”. By showing a cropped photo on the top three rows, it’s possible to say it’s has popularity as that of Barack Obama. But the aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue tells a different story.
Beyond this case, the “fake news” extends from the playful spectrum, that of rumours, to parodies taken in the first degree, to a more serious spectrum: that of hybrid threats, namely a “fake news” which aims to destabilise a country.
Was this fake news bug programmable and could it be anticipated?
Social networks should be called social media because they have a role of informing, filtering, prioritising information, as well as traditional media. Their arrival disrupted the media landscape that had hitherto been based on the information policy, whereas social media is based on a sharing policy. However, “fake news” is an unplanned bug in this sharing policy that clashes with the information policy: the new entrants of the information, when they are not heard, begin to preach the false to have the truth.
Is the Yellow Vest example a paragon of this polarisation and the dangers of the differences in information processing between the elite media and the grassroots media?
The Yellow Vests movement shows us that it is not polarisable. Its members come from all sides and reject any political appropriation. It is a tilting movement that allows the two policies to understand and to support each other. It allows what is said on social media to be retained on mass media, and vice versa; that there is more and more information with proven sources, creative and innovative proposals in relation to our current democratic problem. The job of journalist is called into question and we see a phenomenon appearing in response to “fake news”: the “fact checking”.
Does the debate on "fake news" not translate into a mediacentric bug by giving too much power to the false news on the development of the individual's opinion?
Beyond a bug, I would say it is rather a media panic. The old models, in need of renewal, found themselves faced with new media, developed in the wild, Facebook and Twitter were originally designed as hosting platforms.
Since they went public, they have become media because the advertising / information association has enabled them to create an efficient business model that is nevertheless subject to income generation. And, surprise, we see the appearance of the first “fake news” during the election of Obama. At the same time, the revenues generated by advertising have hurt mass media, impacting their journalistic workforce and thus the quality of information, creating panic. The fake news highlighted two media masses with great asymmetry. On the one hand, the mass media, which are considered responsible and therefore attackable; on the other, social media that were there before 2017, holds no account and therefore, were not liable. Since then, there has been a proliferation of diverse and varied solutions, proof that we are solving the problem. We had to realise that we were faced with an attack on the integrity of information – but especially with an attack on elections and therefore on democracy, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, so that we might say that the risk is “journalism in danger” (“démocrature”).
Do fake news put democracy at risk today?
At the end of a media panic, the status quo is never the same as before the crisis. There is a debate about trust in the media, about the social utility of journalism, and about the forms of self-regulation that are being put in place – by states as well as social media. Regulatory solutions, like the French and German “fake news” laws, have been adopted. Fact checking is growing, civil society is creating its own social media. The solutions are multiple. And to have several types of solutions is to remain in a democracy.
Accusing GAFAM to be the breeding ground for fake news, is it fair, unfair or too early to say?
Two types of players emerged from this crisis as responsible and accountable: GAFAM and the “démocratures”. The former because their system of monetisation and financing contributes to “fake news”. Their audience is itself the media and can be paid for it, and everyone has an interest in generating traffic. The latter are rogue states, which have all the features of democracy but are not like China, Turkey or Russia. These countries show a strong populism, with a great distinction between a potent political power but concentrated within the elite fews and, on the other hand, an economic power expanded to the whole base. There is total liberalism, in return for which political power is tied up. The law on “fake news” in France had only one role, it was to say to these rogue states: be careful, you’re being watched.
Does the rise of fake news not also signify a failure of the rational thought?
The information policy has the whole triumphant look of rational thought, but it was without counting on the cognitive bias. In the sharing policy, emotion is the trigger. It brings our rational and emotional brain together and it changes the game! We see it with the Greens, who made a breakthrough in the European elections, with the young people who are in the street… They invite us to change the debate and priorities to recast our political DNA because the stakes are high.We have a generation left to find a solution that allows us to live together in the 21st century.
Nietzsche said that "There are no facts in itself but interpretations". Are we facing an unprecedented flaw, or can we consider that this bug of information and the development of opinions is only passing in the course of history?
Fake news has a cumulative and transversal dimension: it is transboundary, trans-language, transtemporal. A “fake news” of 2014 can absolutely re-emerge in 2017! And Nietzsche was right. The world is complex and globalised, the solution will not come from a single perspective, ask Einstein! The information policy wanted to balance the perspectives, but the bug appeared when, for reasons of speed, the information policy polarised this norm, putting in particular extremes around the table, during televised debates for example, and giving them the same speaking time, whether they are 5% or 95% representative.
Is the demonetisation of fake news also an emergency?
As it is currently applied, it is not transparent, and it is problematic. The European Group of Experts on Disinformation is working to make advertising revenues more transparent, especially during election periods.
Imagine we are in 2024: what faces do fake news have and what role do they play in the media landscape?
The digital feeds on the digital; social robots learn from our positive human behaviours as negative and can be broughtto reproduce them. For the moment, it is the humans who produce “fake news”. With digital development, we can see the emergence of an artificial influence phenomenon, against which there is only one bulwark: media education and information. Education allows awareness. The little we know about the effects of “fake news” is that they reach an uneducated audience. Cognitive bias is a form of laziness. As long as you do not prove to me how wrong I am, I preferto stay on what I believe, it’s easier. You have to learn to refute. How? “Or” What ? Getting there head-on is not the best strategy. Rather, it is about getting people to work on their own sources by not isolating them in echo chambers or filter bubbles, offering them different types of narratives and different forms of engagement. By doing so, we can solve this problem.
Divina, as is the tradition of Bug Me Tender, we will end this interview on two generic questions. First, what is your own definition of a bug?
Having been trained in English, a bug evokes a ladybug, a good little creature that brings good luck. A bug therefore always carries an opportunity for improvement. We can debug by improving, with support, benevolence, by explaining, by investigating…
Second, in your field, what is or was, personally, the biggest bug?
The biggest bug is the confrontation between the information policy and the sharing policy. Both policies need to get up to speed and recover their ethics.