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Fake News, Trolls, and Bots: What they mean for our democracy

Juste Rekstyte looks at the problem of fake news, trolls and bots, how they are infecting democratic processes across the globe and how to combat their rise.

Image:Nick Youngson

Until a few years ago, the terms ‘fake news’ was unfamiliar and unheard-of, although the concept it represents was not. Naturally, there has always been the issue of sloppy, selective journalism, satire, and hoaxes. Yet the advent of ‘fake news’ as we know it now is decidedly unique and particular to our modern times of near constant social-media consumption. Thanks to the unregulated nature of the internet, information has never been in so accessible and in such abundance. While this poses a significant problem for democracies due to the rise of disinformation campaigns, bots, trolls, and sensationalist click-bait news all helping spread fake news, the solution is surprisingly within reach.

The malicious way in which the internet has been utilised to spread misinformation – or even more worryingly, disinformation – has best been exemplified by the Russian Government. This misinformation process is the spreading of numerous contradictory narratives to sow confusion and uncertainty regarding a certain issue through the use of AI bots or human bot accounts. Key examples of these controversial issues are the annexation of Crimea or the Skripal Poisoning. There are strong allegations that identical campaigns were waged in the lead up to Brexit and during the 2016 presidential election.  A different example of the spreading of fake news would be the man who made the phrase into what it is today – Donald Trump. His repulsion towards journalists and the media is well-known and he is quick to dismiss them as biased, liberal sympathisers, or downright liars. The startling thing about this is how it is creating a precedent wherein uncomfortable or inconvenient truths and valid criticism can be waved aside as “fake news” in favour of “alternative facts”. Essentially, we can pick and choose what we want to believe is the truth. With this overflow of information and conflicting narratives spread far and wide, it becomes hard to follow what is true and what is not.

So why exactly is this a threat to our democracy? It undermines the credibility of journalists when they are challenged by such an array of conflicting narratives spread by trolls and bots. This seriously undermines the ability and effectiveness of holding politicians and leaders to account both by journalists and members of society when criticism can be so easily dismissed, ridiculed and ignored. A misinformed citizenry cannot fully hold their representatives to account.

Now we turn to the causes – how has this happened? Part of the answer is the internet. On a surface level, the abundance of easily available information it provides can be seen as vital for a democracy; citizens find it easier than ever before to educate themselves on current affairs with less interference from gatekeeping members of political establishments and institutions. Looking deeper at this, some problems do nonetheless arise. The arrival of social media has led to the creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers – we have specific sources and accounts we follow for information because they reflect our worldview and perspective. It is well argued by Croteau and Hoynes that our views are reinforced rather than informed by the media. As such, few of us go out of our way to challenge our own mental comfort zones. While this alone doesn’t threaten the foundations of democracy, it provides a vital foothold for bots and trolls.

Trolls are human operated accounts with the purpose of deliberately creating conflict by posting fake or inflammatory content to provoke an emotional response from specific online communities. In contrast, bots are AI software that tend to spam specific information or messages at a very high rate. Both bots and trolls can therefore identify and target a sensitive issue within a community and then create viral news to inflame and polarise groups. Therefore, it is nearly a natural fit for trolls and bots to be actively involved in the distribution of fake news online. Recent examples of this would be the phony articles circulating around migrants and refugees, with claims and accusations ranging from using food stamps to buy alcohol to increasing the cases of crime and assault. A simple Google search would point out these are just hugely twisted, exaggerated, provocative headlines with little to no truth behind them. The same techniques of information warfare have been applied during recent European and American elections. Largely, their efforts to exacerbate tensions and antagonisms within communities have been successful, shown by the rise in anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and the divisions within American communities. In turn, this allows society to become vulnerable to populism and appeals to emotion rather than open dialogue, criticism and debate. Democracy is further put under strain because these efforts go some way in undermining confidence in the political system and its institutions. A worrying example of this returns to Russian disinformation campaigns; some accounts have been exposed as trolls posing to be African Americans on Instagram with the purpose of discouraging minorities from voting at all in the 2016 election.

Social media, populists with twitter accounts, and armies of bots are not the sole causes of the rise of fake news, with some factors being a lot closer to home. Corporate journalism frequently is driven by traffic, ratings and views – sensationalist media is a key factor laying down the framework for this development which must be acknowledged and considered. This brand of media is less concerned about accuracy, policy analysis and debate, and more about presenting news through a lens of ‘politics as entertainment’ covering gossip, scandal and personal conflict. The Presidential Campaign of 2016 seems like a telling of example of tit-for-tat, who-said-what coverage between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Trump. Therefore, we must not take things at face value and instead be critical of what we see on our feeds shared by our former primary school classmates, co-workers and distant relatives. The feelings we get when we see a headline are a deliberate intention from the author to rile up a response – once we acknowledge that, we may proceed with caution.  As a society, we must not throw up our hands in defeat, helplessness and defenceless against these tides of the modern age.

The internet, while partially creating this problem, also has within it the solution; fact checking has never been easier and is often just one Google search away. Despite the efforts of the Russian Government and various far-right groups create divisive, inflammatory content, the target of such content is normally the same alt-right, far right minority. The majority of people do not interact with or consume this content as their primary source of information and therefore its effects, while worrying, are still somewhat limited. Wider society should not be considered as passive, uncritical and unthinking in its consumption of information. We’re all better than that.

The encouraging thing is that this is increasingly acknowledged by campaigners, journalists, universities, and governments. Now there is a growing emphasis on web-literacy and awareness on how to spot these manifestations of fake news. The UK government has opened an enquiry regarding fake news, specifically into how to spot it, how it spreads and its effects on the public. News organisations such as the BBC have run features about how to identify hoaxes, fake news and bots. Our own library here at Warwick runs a web-literacy class on spotting fake news as well.

So yes, bots, trolls and fake news do threaten democracy and have concerning motivations to incite fear, intolerance and disillusionment within our societies. Yet we are not defenceless, and it is in our own hands to remain critical, open-minded and willing to participate in open dialogue rather than be misinformed and divided. The threat fake news poses to our democracy is only as big as we let it become.

Juste Rekstyte is a second year History and Politics student at the University of Warwick

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