By Nadia Bamoshmoosh

JANUARY 19, 2021

Why is the phenomenon of fake news so relevant these days? We think of ourselves as literate enough to understand when the information given to us is real or not. But the factors that determine the widespread of those are more complex and underhand.

Nowadays, we are living in a world that is overwhelmed with information of all types. Firstly, our personal data is collected, scammed and analyzed by electronic devices that store them. Secondly, the media data, put simply news, is more easily available due to the contribution of the widespread media and internet around the world. Moreover, regarding this latter type of information, it is not only given by authorities or official institutions and then broadcasted to the population, but it is the population itself, composed by individuals, that can emit any kind of news and then diffuse it everywhere.

Aside from the evolution of technology which has deeply facilitated the circulation of news, what has also impacted on this phenomenon is that the right of personal communication and the manifestation of opinion (news and information) are generally granted universally: surely there are real abuses and 

limits especially in non-democratic and authoritarian countries, but the general idea, granted also by international treaties, is that the ability to communicate and to express an idea is the freedom of every individual. 

However, these two rights, which were once separated and thus disciplined differently, are now overlapping as a side effect of social media. As a consequence, what is posted on social media is neither disciplined by the laws following the right of communication nor by the laws following the right of manifestation of opinion. And while I can tell another person anything and I should not be controlled in any way, the same cannot be said if I speak to a public crowd. From what has just been said, there is the deduction that social media and the Internet are living in complete anarchy that allows, following the principle of the survival of the fittest, that the strongest entity will prevail. And, unlike a system where for example the monopoly is held by a State or an official figure, on the Internet the “stronger figure” will not automatically respect the “right” interests of everyone.


So, we can be easily controlled and our opinion and perspectives can be distorted by some. To give an example, let us take a deeper look on how Internet cookies work: search engines are paid by commercial companies to advertise their products, so they take the personal data of their user and sponsor to better suit every individual, the recipient of the cookie will thus have the perception that what he or she likes is what is more popular in the general public. 


It is to be said that the user normally prefers to receive information and opinions in line with theirs, giving more credit to an unrealistic, but comfortable statement than a more concrete, but unpleasant one. This is where we start to have the proliferation of the so-called fake news; this false or misleading information spreads among the public eye, usually online.


A factor that has contributed to the development of fake news is that our reality is very complex. Let us just think of how societies were composed not even 70 years ago; there was a clear division between classes each of which had its clear interests and purposes informing a proletarian on their rights and the major events of the week was an easy task. Nowadays, our society is pluralistic and multifaceted, so it is not as straightforward to inform everyone of their interests. 


So, in the attempt of managing this complexity, what has been done is over-simplifying the reality; this encourages populism and sovereigntist behaviours that give one easy solution which, by cutting corners, lacks any structure or actual substance. If we take a quick look at some accounts we see that the articles that are shared are usually attracting the reader’s attention with an interesting title, but the content is very different and explains much more. For example, the title of a certain politician involved in an investigation for a criminal offence might mean for a distracted reader that the public figure is guilty, but, after clicking on the link, the article could explain that the investigation is still open, which is far different from the politician being indicted, let alone for the ascertainment of their guilt. Fake news could work also through these above-mentioned means.


Fake news can develop very fast and grow in our big-data world. We are used to having access to any information we want to know. However, aside from the fact that being aware of all the worldwide events can cause psychological damages to the person (for instance, knowing about all the floods in the worlds that killed people is indeed encouraging the person to have a pessimistic attitude towards the outside world), the need of having an overall knowledge of all the matters worldwide can mean there is superficiality in receiving them. The individual will try to know everything, but with such shallowness, some information will be distorted. 


So, what is the solution to contrast fake news? An exact answer is very hard, fake news is mainly spread online where there is no authority that could regulate the release of the news. Many tried to see the World Wide Web as an “algorithmic democracy”, but this indeed isn’t the case. An attempt should be tried by the main social media: an example is the Facebook Oversight Board that tries to moderate the platform’s contents. Twitter lately has censored many posts of President Trump which were evidently false. Maybe there should be an intervention from State and public authorities, without falling at the same time into authoritarian attitudes. We have experienced it very well with our current pandemic situation. Worldwide problems, such as fake news, can be resolved not only by government or top-down intervention, but also by individual action through an improvement of digital literacy among the general public.