Real News About Fake News

June 10, 2019 | Media
It’s not just making people believe false things—a new study suggests it’s also making them less likely to consume or accept information.

The rise of fake news in the American popular consciousness is one of the remarkable growth stories in recent years—a dizzying climb to make any Silicon Valley unicorn jealous. Just a few years ago, the phrase was meaningless. Today, according to a new Pew Research Center study, Americans rate it as a larger problem than racism, climate change, or terrorism.

Pew finds that Americans have deeply divergent views about fake news and different responses to it, which suggest that the emphasis on misinformation might actually run the risk of making people, especially conservatives, less well-informed. More than making people believe false things, the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth.

Pew doesn’t define what it calls “made-up news,” which is a reasonable choice in the context of a poll, but matters a great deal in interpreting it. The term has come to mean different things to different people. It was coined to describe deliberately false articles created by Potemkin news sites and spread on social media. But in a deliberate effort to muddy the waters, President Donald Trump began labeling news coverage that was unfavorable to him “fake news.” (Indeed, Pew finds that Americans blame politicians and their aides, more than the press, activist groups, or foreign actors, for the problem of made-up news.) Now when Trump’s supporters refer to “fake news,” they often seem to mean mainstream news they dislike, whereas when others do so, they mean bogus information spread by fringe actors.

Pew finds a significant gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on the seriousness of the problem with made-up news, though:

It’s a positive sign that people are trying to fact-check stories themselves, though it’s an open question whether they’re any good at it. 

Some of the other choices are more troubling. One of the biggest risks often imputed to the current media environment, in which audiences can pick and choose news outlets that agree with them, is that people will become more and more siloed, cutting themselves off from information that they don’t like or that contradicts their prior assumptions.

The Pew study suggests that fake-news panic, rather than driving people to abandon ideological outlets and the fringe, may actually be accelerating the process of polarization: It’s driving consumers to drop some outlets, to simply consume less information overall, and even to cut out social relationships.

If people stop reading a website, because it’s peddling conspiracy theories, that’s good news. If they stop consuming any coverage from mainstream outlets like CNN or The Washington Post, because they believe a story is biased, or because the president has labeled it fake news, that’s less positive.

Fully half of respondents said they had avoided talking with someone, because they thought that person might bring made-up news and information into the conversation. 

Nor does Pew’s study offer much reason for optimism that these problems will fade anytime soon. The public’s solutions are fraught with contradictions. More than half of respondents said that journalists bear the most responsibility for fixing the problem (53 percent, versus 20 percent for the public, 12 percent for the government, and 9 percent for tech companies), and yet eight in 10 say limitations on made-up news and information—restrictions on free speech, in other words—are needed. Moreover, almost two-thirds of people said that political divisions are a big challenge to addressing made-up news. Yet the steps that they report taking themselves seem likely to only exacerbate those political divisions.