What does fake news tell us about life in the digital age? Not what you might expect

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Editor’s note: The first three chapters of a remarkable new document, A Field Guide to Fake News, are being released at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. The guide, the work of a team of scholars, explores new and more subtle ways of looking at the fake news phenomenon — and, through it, how our lives are mediated in an age of data, platforms and algorithms. Below, three of its coauthors summarize some of what they’ve found; don’t forget to check out the full document.

Five months after the U.S. elections, fake news remains high on media, political, and public agendas, having sparked a wave of concern, responses, and counter-responses in countries around the world.

Media and technology companies have established major new projects and charged ten-thousand-person units with dealing with it — leading to concerns about “band-aid solutionism.” Governments and public institutions have launched consultations, programs, and investigations to research and respond to the issue, including state-sponsored debunking initiatives in regions from Russia to the European Union, as well as proposals for multi-million euro fines.

The term has become a keyword for both media institutions and the political mobilizations who contest them. Driven by countless reports, position papers, analyses, columns, reflections, op-eds, startups, imitators, accusations, and parodies, and despite numerous attempts to declare the issue “dead,” “meaningless,” or itself “fake” — the issue endures, like a prolonged argument where no one’s able to have the last word.

Amidst all of the panic, finger-pointing, hype, bandwagons, and fatigue, what are we to make of this highly mediatized and politicized issue? How are we to understand and collectively respond to the phenomena which are the center of concern? As a network of researchers specialising in digital methods for social, political, and cultural inquiry, over the past few months, we’ve been engaged in a number of projects to trace the production, circulation, and reception of fake news online — and to see how we might bring fresh perspectives and unfamiliar angles to the public debate.

It’s a fascinating object of inquiry — not in spite of but precisely because of its highly contested and hotly debated character — which tells us just as much about the character of infrastructures and social institutions whose functioning we may not usually notice as it does about their weaknesses, failings, and blind spots.

The concern is not just that these infrastructures and institutions are being gamed and exploited (as they routinely are by advertisers, media, and technology companies, politicians, and by many other organizations and professions), but rather the feeling that the social rules and norms that normally bind us together are being violated — whether for fun, profit, or (geo-)political gain.

But in following fake news online, we encounter not just rogue producers, state propagandists, geopolitical fault lines and hyperpartisan mobilizations. We also learn about the patterning and politics of collective life online, and the consequences and logics of the different technological and economic modes of organization that undergird it.

Here we have the uncanny feeling that, in hot pursuit of the perpetrator, we discover a trail of evidence leading to our own doors. As media scholars Mike Ananny and Kate Crawford recently pointed out, the platforms and algorithms at the center of fake news controversies can be understood not just as “black boxes,” but also as “relational achievements” that involve and evolve alongside our own lives online.

One can certainly make the point that the person holding the weapon is not necessarily the only one with blood on their hands. But we also wish to suggest that the issue of fake news can be leveraged as an opportunity for public reflection, political economic imagination, and more thoughtful, attentive, and potentially ambitious interventions around the organization of the platforms and infrastructures which pattern our lives in the digital age.

Beyond becoming more efficient and effective at what is often described as the “whack-a-mole” game of cracking down on fake news (including using new technologies to semi-automate social and political acts of judgment and classification), what can we learn about our societies, ourselves, and life in an age of digitization, datafication, and platformization? How might we effect a shift from thinner descriptions of fake news producers and their strategies towards thicker descriptions of the ecologies in which they thrive? And what and how might we learn from these richer accounts?

Below are four ways of seeing fake news differently, drawing on our ongoing research collaborations around A Field Guide to Fake News with the Public Data Lab. The guide focuses not on findings or solutions, but on starting points for collective inquiry, debate, and deliberation around how we understand and respond to fake news — and the broader questions they raise about the future of the data society.

Fake news challenges clear-cut, binary conceptions of fakeness

As many have pointed out, there are many different kinds of fake news. Or, as we put it in a forthcoming paper with colleagues, there are many different “shades of fakeness.”1 So much is evident in what one might call “controversies of classification” (around a list of false, misleading, clickbaity, and satirical sources by Melissa Zimdars, for instance), as well as in difficulties encountered around early attempts to fully automate the identification of fake news.

We have sought to develop digital methods and approaches for exploring what has been associated with the “fake news” label. One thing we established was that the meaning and significance of a given piece of content can vary significantly over time and across different settings. For example, from tracing the life cycles of fake news on Google search engine results, we found that a story that starts life as explicitly satirical can become “laundered” into clickbait and shared as a news source, and then shared again as an example of hyperpartisan misinformation or geopolitical disinformation.

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