The rise of ‘fake news’ sites, internet filter bubbles, and the ever-increasing polarisation of society has given rise to the idea that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ world. This is a scary prospect. When there is no truth, fear reigns. Disputes become unresolvable, politics become zero sum, and societies become cruel.
We have long understood that freedom of expression is essential to the functioning of liberal democracies. But now we are beginning to understand that a capacity to determine the truth is also necessary.
The Death of Truth
There is nothing new about ‘fake news’ – what in a previous era we just called ‘lies’ – being propagated by individuals, organisations and governments. And human nature has long led us to believe stories that reinforce our existing worldview. What has changed is technology. The internet has led to a massive increase in the number of media outlets, broadening the information environment from a few newspapers clustered between centre-left and centre right, to a panoply of sources ranging from the far left to far right. Multiple new sources from Huffington Post to Breitbart to a bunch of teenagers in Macedonia have emerged in recent years and profoundly confused the information environment.
The pay-per-click business model of the internet also means that stories that elicit the strongest reaction (often antithetical to nuance and truth) accrue the greatest financial rewards. And the algorithms used by internet companies to tailor content to individual preferences has greatly strengthened the natural ‘filter bubbles’ which restrict our access to opposing viewpoints.
While the breaking of the establishment’s stranglehold on the media is to be welcomed, these changes in the information environment have also meant that there are no longer any sources of information that are universally viewed as credible. The problem with this is not just that it allows occasional lies to be accepted by segments of the population as true. It is that, without an accepted reference point for truth, societies degenerate into rival camps screaming ‘liar!’ at each other.
One casualty of this is that it is becoming impossible to achieve political consensus even on fairly technocratic issues such as health care and pension reform. The other is that it has increased the possibility of elections being manipulated by special interests and foreign powers. Misinformation was a key theme of the recent US election, in which Hillary Clinton was demonised daily – often without any factual basis – in both new and established right-wing outlets.
But this problem is not limited to the United States. While we have not yet observed a similar degree of misinformation in European elections, that could well change this year. France and Germany will both hold national elections this year, and both will likely be targeted by misinformation campaigns.
It is worth noting that online sources are less influential in France and Germany than they are in the US. According to a Reuters Institute survey, in France, 10 percent of people use social media as their main source of news and 21 percent other online sources. In Germany, the figures are 6 and 19 percent. By comparison, in the U.S., 15 percent use social media as their main source of news, and 27 percent the internet. But the problem is not limited to online news and, in any case, a small number of misled voters could tip the balance in a tight election race.
In the German election, for example, current polls put the liberal FDP very close to the 5-percent threshold above which it would gain representation in the German parliament. Were the FDP to get in to parliament, current Chancellor Angela Merkel will most likely only be able to form a coalition with the Social Democrats. But were the FDP to remain outside parliament, Merkel could also choose a coalition with the Green party, strengthening her chances of staying in power. Well targeted misinformation relating to the FDP might therefore be able to tip the balance of the overall election result.
Bringing back truth
It is time to recognize that the integrity of information about current events and persons of public interest is part of the critical infrastructure of liberal democracy. If that infrastructure is compromised, the stability of the political system (and of liberal democracy itself) is threatened. Attacks on information integrity are therefore national security problems. And national security problems require a distinct response from domestic issues.
Of course, labelling something a national security problem does not obviate civil liberty concerns. It would be worse than foolish to destroy liberal democracy in order to save it. But the label does highlight the severity of the threat, and it suggests that difficult compromises and previously inconceivable regulatory efforts need to be considered.
The question, therefore, is how can liberal societies protect against the erosion of truth while maintaining freedom of expression? There are no easy solutions but a few possibilities present themselves:
(1) Establish a correction mechanism
One element of an effective strategy against misreporting and fake news would be to make sure that clearly factually wrong news and deliberate misinformation cannot be spread as easily through social networks. This is already happening, with Germany set to be the second country after the US to benefit from Facebook’s new ‘disputed’ model for reducing the power of fake news.
But the social media companies’ reluctance on this issue in the past suggests that governments may need to threaten regulation in order to encourage them to respond with appropriate urgency. One possibility would be to legislate a procedure under which anyone who has seen factually false information about them being spread through social media can ask for a correction to be displayed as prominently as the original post to all those who saw it. Such procedures are in place in many European countries for traditional media, and have worked quite well in getting rid of the most outrageous pieces of misreporting.
(2) Increase transparency
One of the best ways of establishing any given source’s credibility should be to understand its business model and, particularly, its funders. Many information sources (including think tanks) do not make money through market mechanisms but rather through support from various types of funders—corporate, foundations, individuals, and governments.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It makes perfect sense for people and institutions to compete in the important marketplace of ideas. But just as we need for national security reasons to understand who is moving money across borders even when it is legal, we need to understand precisely who is moving information. Regulation should be in place to make sure that information sources of a certain size provide information about their funding.
(3) Encourage quality journalism
One of the most effective counters for bad news is good news. And since markets are clearly failing to provide quality information, it makes sense for the government to invest in creating that infrastructure.
This means new policies for promoting quality journalism, such as publicly funding foundations which finance independent reporting, funding standards bodies that promote best practices, and creating independent bodies that grade news outlets on their quality and responsibility.
(4) More information education
A final element would be to improve the population’s awareness about misinformation and fake news. Just as its needs to be conveyed to the average internet users that “password” or “12345” are not secure passwords, the users need to learn the difference between high-quality and low-quality information. To this end, education about how to evaluate the quality of information found on the internet should be added to all school curricula.
These are just nascent ideas. There are many other possibilities and each idea will contain serious pitfalls. But the key point is the shift in the mind-set that is now required. Information integrity has become a national security issues for liberal democracies. And so compromises will need to be made. We need to understand that if we fail to protect information, we fail to protect our nations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.