While propaganda in democracies have been studied for decades, the scope has widened to include other terms. Following disagreements between the media’s evidence and the White House Press Secretary about Trump’s inauguration turnout, it was revealed that the numbers the Press Secretary claimed were false. When the Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, was asked about the Press Secretary citing false information, she said that he was providing alternative facts.
She later amended her statement saying that she intended the term to mean alternative information and additional facts, giving the example that it was similar to saying the weather was partly cloudy versus partly sunny. But the phrase ‘alternative facts’ was used to describe a falsified statement by an official and so joined the narrative of fake news and hoaxes that followed the candidates in the 2016 election. Citizens have access to an incredible amount of information in the internet age, but in this swell of facts and alternative facts, have people’s skills at verifying their information caught up? Can people still be informed voters as we approach the 2020 election cycle?
There are objections that fake news is not even a threat to the relationship between politicians and their constituents. By sheer numbers, sites like Infowars and Breitbart see 6 million and 19 million unique visitors a month respectively, while traditional media outlets like CNN see 122 million. The argument is that traditional media outlets will overload any conspiracy harbors that exist and maintain control over the country’s conversation on political candidates and democratic institutions. But I argue that relying on sheer numbers when it comes to traditional media readership does not eliminate the problem of fake news for having informed voters in a democracy.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were accused by internet communities of running a child sacrifice and sex traffic ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. Mostly spread by Facebook groups, the sex trafficking conspiracy was believed by citizens to the point that the restaurant received threats and someone fired a weapon on the premises. The conspiracy’s spread on the internet inspired other individuals to visit the restaurant as citizen investigators. The fact that the hoax went viral because of individuals sharing it exhibits the problem with fake news. Fake news does not always come from media outlets or prominent politicians- it can originate and be spread by citizens themselves. Information illiteracy does not only make citizens victims, but also perpetrators of fake news. A democracy will have to defend elected leaders, media outlets, and other institutions from fake news that can originate from anywhere among the citizenry and spread like wildfire.
But tools like the internet also provide accessible ways to verify information. A study looked at how alternative facts and fact checking impacted voters in the 2017 French election. While the impact of fact checking false statements was a success when it came to correcting statistics and false numbers, the study found that this had little impact on voting intentions, theorizing that even though the facts were wrong the impression on the voter remained.  The impression was on how important an issue was to the country. If a campaign used false statements to claim that a particular issue was important and needed a political response, fact checking could not undo the impression that this was still an important issue, even if the statistics were wrong. Despite fact checking, politicians can still gain a benefit for misrepresenting information to make their major policy concerns appear to be the country’s major policy concerns. Even if fake news spread by citizens is later identified as fake, voters will still think the issue is salient.
Expecting citizens to maintain their status as an informed voter by fact checking official’s statements and Facebook conspiracy theories is not a complete solution. But it is a start, and can limit the spread of fake news. If the spread of fake news is limited, then the lasting impression fake news has on voters will be contained. Especially since mainstream media outlets have historically published false claims as well, increasing citizens’ ability to navigate information they are exposed to can only lead to a more informed populace, even if it does not completely solve the long term effects of fake news. Whether politicians spread alternative facts or citizens do, the problem of fake news can be mitigated by encouraging citizens to fact check claims and improve their information literacy.
Photo by Isabet Tranchin Rodriguez, Barrera et al. 2017. “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” Working paper.