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‘Fake news’ and the Trumpian threat to democracy

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When President Trump addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, his jabs at the “nasty,” “vicious,” “fake” media earned him audible groans and hisses — even from some non-American reporters in the room. It may have been a new experience for them, but journalists in the United States have become rather depressingly inured to Trump's diatribes.

That wasn't always the case.

“At the end of 2016, 'fake news' had a clear meaning. It referred to stories that were fabrications — the Clinton Foundation paying for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding or a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza shop,” noted The Washington Post's Fact Checker. “The phrase was popularized after Google, Facebook and Twitter vowed to eliminate the phony content that some have speculated helped tilt the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor.”

But, starting early in his presidency, Trump seized upon the words “fake news” and shaped them into a cudgel he incessantly wields. He has routinely tweeted against the “fake news” media when it has the temerity to fact-check a multitude of erroneous claims he has made; doled out “fake news” awards to outlets whose coverage he thinks is helplessly biased against him; and looked on as a series of autocrats and strongmen abroad aped his rhetoric, invoking “fake news” to argue away documented reports of ethnic cleansing, torture and war crimes.

A new study, though, restores a bit of clarity to what “fake news” actually represents. Researchers at Oxford University's Internet Institute spent 18 months identifying 91 sources of propaganda from across the political spectrum on social media, which spread what they deemed “junk news” that was deliberately misleading or masquerading as authentic reporting. They then did a deep analysis of three months of social media activity in the United States, studying 13,477 Twitter users and 47,719 public Facebook pages that consumed or shared this fake news between November 2017 and January 2018.

What they found was a profound imbalance.

“Analysis showed that the distribution of junk news content was unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum,” the institute said in a news release. “On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shared the widest range of junk news sources and accounted for the highest volume of junk news sharing in the sample, closely followed by the conservative media group. On Facebook, extreme hard right pages shared more junk news than all the other audience groups put together.”

Right-wing critics of mainstream media in the United States would likely recoil at this characterization and point to what they see as anti-Trump hysteria in mainstream or liberal outlets. But the study shows there is no symmetrical equivalence.

“We find that the political landscape is strikingly divided across ideological lines when it comes to who is sharing junk news,” said Oxford researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert in a statement. “We find that Trump supporters, hard conservatives and right-wing groups are circulating more junk news than other groups.”

The phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Late last year, a team of German researchers at the Hohenheim University collaborated with a local public broadcaster to create a fake far-right news site that shared fabricated, sensationalist stories on Facebook about refugees and immigrants. These pieces reached thousands of far-right supporters in Germany, many of whom recirculated the stories. It reflected the willingness of people in ideological echo chambers to believe what they want to believe rather than check or evaluate sources.

It also exposed a problem with social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which critics have lambasted as not doing enough to curb the scourge of fraudulent content and “bots” that amplify fake news. “It was striking that our Facebook profile was never questioned — not by Facebook, that is, the institution itself, nor by other users,” said Wolfgang Schweiger, the lead researcher in the project, to the BBC.

Studies like this and the Oxford Internet Institute investigation may add to the pressure on tech companies to do better at fighting misinformation spread through their platforms. Facebook and other companies are working to better identify fake accounts and stem the damage they might cause. In Italy, Facebook has contracted a team of independent fact checkers to monitor and debunk fake news ahead of elections next month. On Tuesday, Facebook agreed to a similar arrangement with Mexico's National Electoral Institute.

But while social media may help reinforce tribal divisions, the “fake news” moment reflects a deeper, intensifying polarization in the United States and elsewhere, one that predates Trump's political rise or even the era of social media as a prime vehicle for delivering information. As Vox's Matt Yglesias noted in a gloomy essay on the prospect of a looming crisis in American democracy — written well before Trump was elected — the country's political system is being fundamentally weakened by intensifying ideological divisions. Those gaps have made compromise more difficult and emboldened presidents to expand their executive powers.

“Over the past 25 years, it's set America on a course of paralysis and crisis — government shutdowns, impeachment, debt ceiling crises, and constitutional hardball,” Yglesias wrote. “Voters, understandably, are increasingly dissatisfied with the results and confidence in American institutions has been generally low and falling. But rather than leading to change, the dissatisfaction has tended to yield wild electoral swings that exacerbate the sense of permanent crisis.”

In this climate, the proliferation of “fake news” — and the arguments over it — are a mark of a dangerous political degradation. For Trump, it serves as an extension of the same demagogic mind-set that saw him labeling Democrats who did not clap during his speech as “un-American” and “treasonous.” Analysts point to how such unravelings led to coups and chaos in countries as disparate as Chile and Turkey.

“Some polarization is healthy, even necessary, for democracy. But extreme polarization can kill it. When societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when those differences are viewed as existential and irreconcilable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred,” wrote Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the new book “How Democracies Die.” “Parties come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the German university that carried out its own experiment with fake news. It is the University of Hohenheim, not Hoffenheim.

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