Book Review: What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Fake News? by Nick Anstead
In What do we know and what should we do about fake news?, Nick Anstead examines what we mean by fake news and how to deal with it. This concise book puts fake news in its historical context and offers clear and short summaries of the current scientific work on this topic Matt Bluemink.
What do we know and what should we do about fake news? Nick instead. WAY. 2021.
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Since the rise of Donald Trump and the global populist movements encouraged by his success, there has been a term that has seemingly become ubiquitous in the discussion about the role of the media in today’s society: fake news. The term may have been recklessly whirled around by both politicians and news outlets, but this narrow volume by Nick Anstead, Associate Professor in the LSE Department of Media and Communications tries to answer the questions: What exactly do we mean by fake news? And can we do something about it?
One of the problems that arises when discussing fake news is the difficulty of defining it. Throughout the book, Anstead summarizes a number of academic analyzes of the phenomenon and highlights the difficulties researchers face when confronted with an institutional definition of fake news. For example, how can we distinguish satire and parody from deliberately misleading fabricated stories? These questions lead him to a multifaceted approach that ranges from historical to statistical analysis. He wants to show how fake news highlights the fact that “our ideas of truthfulness and falsehood are inherently linked to questions of power, trust and authority and the institutions and persons to whom they are bestowed” (2).
The first half of the book is devoted to classifying fake news in its historical context and examines examples of misinformation from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. But is there anything radically different about fake news in the age of digital technology? In the 21st century, our media consumption has changed dramatically. Most importantly, to Anstead, we have moved from an age of mass media to an age of fragmented media, where our news has been individualized and citizens choose what information to consume from a variety of sources. This is particularly evident in the rise of social media as a trusted news source around the world (36-37).
Image source: Image by Elf-Moundance from Pixabay
The trend of increasing news consumption through social media raises important questions about our relationship to politics in the digital age. The ease with which information can be shared on social media leads to a number of potential reasons for fake news to be spread. The three main motives are: profit; Geopolitics; and partisanship / ideology (44). From Macedonian teens sharing fake news online for Google Adsense revenue to state-owned Russian tech companies who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting politically divisive content on Facebook, it’s undoubtedly easier than ever to do this kind of deliberately misleading Disseminate content.
In fact, due to the destabilization of the traditional “technocratic-liberal order” and the emergence of populist politics, fake news need have minimal impact on certain voters to have a major impact on democratic elections. As Anstead sums up:
When fake news is used as an ideological or geopolitical weapon, it is intended to reinforce existing divisions within a society. This undermines public confidence in political institutions and reduces the possibility of consensus building, making it more difficult to achieve solid but civil disagreements (51).
Accepting this conclusion inevitably leads to the question: What should we do with fake news? Anstead argues that there are two types of solutions to this question. The first are policy-based solutions that identify and remove fake messages and improve the digital literacy of the population to identify them. The second are discursive solutions (based on the idea of discursive internationalism) that involve rethinking our relationship with democratic institutions.
This section of the book is arguably the most important, but also the most problematic. Anstead shows the growing trend among social media companies to ban users for violating their fake news or inciting rules of violence, which culminated in the blocking of Donald Trump’s private Facebook and Twitter accounts earlier this year. However, Anstead notes that it is extremely short-sighted to view our trust in large data mining companies as bastions of moral judgment. Instead, would it be wiser to rely on government intervention to stop the spread of fake news? This is exactly what the NetzDG does in Germany. It gives social media companies one to seven days to remove “obviously illegal” content before being fined up to 50 million euros. However, the German law has also been heavily criticized for restricting freedom of expression and has been reviewed. A law like this would be untenable in a country like the United States, where the Constitution makes it very difficult to restrict freedom of expression (60-61).
One criticism that could be made here relates to the policy-based solutions proposed by Anstead. The one who gets the least attention is arguably the most important: improving media literacy. Here the author seems to miss this idea and dedicates only one page to it. Granted, Anstead covers a lot in this chapter, but if we are to seriously think about how to address the serious political consequences of misinformation, an advanced digital education system would be a necessary step. While government and corporate solutions retrospectively heal the problem of fake news (while triggering a whole host of potential criticisms about rights and freedoms), preventive education can give citizens the tools they need to distinguish fact from fiction a constantly evolving media environment. Anstead makes a brief note of this point, but if it were expanded it would certainly strengthen the overall argumentation of the book.
Conversely, Anstead spends more time reviewing criticism of postmodernism and asking whether we “should stop being postmodern (or possibly postmodern?)” (65). This is where this section of the chapter gets somewhat confused. In attempting to criticize postmodernism and its relevance to fake news in a balanced way, Anstead risks falling into the trap of overemphasizing the “postmodern bogeye” and not the ideas themselves. The reader who is not familiar with this topic may at first be unclear whether Anstead is defending or attacking postmodernism. Nevertheless, after a brief discussion of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984), he comes to a striking conclusion:
Postmodernity should not be construed as an attack on the idea of truth. Rather, it is an account of how truth is constructed and how these processes have been destabilized in an increasingly complex world. […] In addition, with their focus on narratives, the postmodernists point to an essential component in building successful democratic institutions. Citizens must have a common belief in the value and fairness of these institutions (68).
This leads Anstead to an important conclusion: “Fake news thrives in environments in which citizens feel excluded from political and democratic processes” (70). In other words, fake news itself does not create divisions, but catalyzes existing divisions in society. If we want to tackle fake news, we cannot do it without first addressing these divisions (be it social, religious, or racial). Our political future depends on constructing a new pluralistic and empathic form of debate that is appropriate to our modern technology society. We must also move away from thinking about fake news in terms of specific content and instead “think further about how we can build democratic institutions capable of withstanding an age in which information and the authority to share information are more diffuse are “(75). .
In summary, while the book has flaws, these are mainly due to the breadth of information Anstead tries to cover in the short space it is given. By placing fake news in its historical context and providing clear and concise summaries of current academic work on the subject, Anstead’s book provides a solid point of contact for people who want to understand one of the most pressing problems of our time.
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Note: This article represents the views of the author and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
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About the reviewer
Matt Bluemink is a London-based philosopher and writer. His research focuses on the philosophical implications of technology and education. He is also the founder and publisher of the online magazine bluelabyrinths.com. Twitter: @bluelabyrinths.