Fake news is not a recent phenomenon, but social media and digital practices have provided it with an echo chamber like no other, amplified still further by the Covid-19. However, the media are fully determined to promote quality news. Public authorities are also getting involved in this issue and platforms are making a start on addressing disinformation.
The numerous complex and sometimes disordered news streams that are very easy to share on social media provide an ideal breeding ground for the spreading fake news. In all democratic countries, the “traditional” media outlets have long had fact-checking units in place. Programmes deciphering the manipulation of news also strive to heighten public vigilance and challenge on the barrage of fake news.
This meticulous, often laborious work can seem derisory given the speed of propagation of fake news. A study by MIT, published in the journal Science in 2018, showed that an item of fake news spreads six times faster than an accurate, verified piece of information. Fact checkers also have to deal with the cognitive bias inherent in the human brain, which often finds it more reassuring to subscribe to far -fetched but simple remarks, rather than well-argued but complex realities. And perhaps above all, they have to grapple with the distribution power of social platforms and their algorithmic model.
The major platforms – Google, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, etc. – have admittedly taken measures to try and limit the spread of fake news, mostly during Covid-19, with an emphasis on verified content, and during the 2020 American election. Whilst movement has unquestionably begun, the mechanisms for flagging up fake news and for increasing transparency as regards the recommendation and moderation algorithms could still be greatly improved, as noted in September 2021 by France’s media regulator, the CSA.
Faced with the powerful effects of algorithmic bias, the efforts made by the platforms remain limited. Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed in September 2021 that the social media platform altered its algorithms prior to the 2020 American presidential election to reduce the spread of fake news, before returning to its old algorithms, putting “profits before user safety”. Instagram has also been called into question over the slowness with which it reacted to internal studies showing that over-emphasis on the “perfect” body image and “perfect” lives had a negative effect on young people’s mental health.
SPREADS SIX TIMES
FASTER THAN AN
In early 2020, after hunting down the results of climate-related searches on YouTube, the American NGO, Avaaz revealed that Google’s recommendation system amplified the circulation of climate-sceptic videos and those relaying false content. Eighteen months later, in October 2021, the platform banned ads for, and monetization of, content that “contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change”. Advertising algorithms unintentionally finance purveyors of misinformation through programmatic buying. According to NewsGuard and Comscore, 1.68% of digital ad spending was via this method to websites deemed unreliable, generating no less than $2.6 billion in annual revenue.
Whilst the pandemic may have provided the opportunity for an unprecedented barrage of fake news, it also highlighted the value of reliable information. In its Digital News Report 20213 , the Reuters Institute noted a six-point rise in trust in the news during the pandemic: 44% of people trust the news given in the media in general most of the time, compared with 24% for news on social media. Finland is the country with the highest level of trust in the news (65%), whereas the US has the lowest level (29%). France (30%) appears markedly more dubious than Northern European countries such as Germany (53%), Belgium (54%) and the Netherlands (59%).
The battle is far from over, but a general awareness of the issue is evident from the numerous initiatives aimed at promoting and protecting news quality as a pillar of democracy. In Europe, the Digital Services Act (DSA) will regulate the digital economy by forcing platforms and social media to limit illicit content and increase transparency regarding the inner workings of their algorithms.
TRUST THE NEWS
GIVEN IN THE MEDIA
MOST OF THE TIME,
24% FOR NEWS
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
In some countries, the State is also taking on these issues and not just from a legislative perspective. In August 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court approved a €0.86 increase in the licence fee to enable public audio-visual media outlets to present “the truth thanks to thoroughly researched, authenticated information.” In France, a commission called “Les Lumières à l’ère numérique” – Enlightenment in the Digital Age – was tasked at the end of September 2021 with starting a debate on the impact that the internet is having on the news and democracy, so as to “prompt a collective wake-up call” and draw up proposals for solutions.
 Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, September 2021: Assessment of the measures implemented in 2020 to combat manipulation of the news on online platforms
 The study was conducted among a sample consisting of 7,500 websites for which traffic and advertising costs were measured by Comscore, and using a database of over 6,500 news and current affairs websites whose credibility rating was assessed by NewsGuard; 3 Reuters Institute, Digital News Report 2021.