American democracy under threat: Fake news, alternative facts

American democracy under threat: Fake news, alternative facts
Comment: Freedom of the press is one of the pillars of American democracy. In casting criticism as fake news, Trump is playing a very dangerous game, writes Tamara Kharroub.
6 min read
23 Feb, 2017
President Trump's press conference plays on a monitor outside Fox News studios, New York [Getty]

In his first solo press conference on February 16, President Trump spent most of the bizarre 77 minutes attacking the media for their "hateful" reporting of the White House and calling them dishonest, biased, and insulting - even when asking basic policy questions.

"We have to find out what's going on because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control," the president said. He even upgraded his nickname for CNN from "fake news" to "very fake news".

On 18 February, President Trump tweeted that the press is not his enemy but "the enemy of the American people," a typical claim often used by totalitarian regimes to stigmatise and criminalise anyone who disagrees with them and, in this case, undermine the press.

As the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press - recognising the importance of the media in a functioning democracy - this type of rhetoric is explosive. The importance of the press in democratic processes has been extensively discussed and demonstrated by political scientists.

One of the most influential social theorists of our world, Jurgen Habermas, was first to present the importance of the press in terms of the public sphere. Habermas defined the public sphere as a network of information, opinions and independent debate about issues of public concern. The presence of informed citizens is a vital component of participatory democracy, as information determines political action.

In a "post-truth" era - where actual fake stories are widely available, the administration is making up blatant lies about indisputable facts, and any scrutiny of information is attacked as dishonest and biased - what are the threats to American democracy?

Grassroots fake news

A significant component of the fake news bonanza, and one that complicates the matter even further, is having actual news stories being disseminated online that are consciously false.

During the presidential elections in 2016, a Macedonian teen used Google AdSense and social media platforms to distribute fake news stories about the US election. Making money from penny-per-click advertising, the teen reported earning more than $60,000 in six months, through publishing false sensationalised stories about then-candidate Hillary Clinton, mostly among Trump supporters.

The Trump presidency has shown an unprecedented disregard for facts and truth

For unemployed youth in countries such as Macedonia and with a Trump fan base receptive to consuming such stories, fake news is a booming business.

However, these stories are not just harmless fun or mere business opportunities. While a study by Pew Research Center shows that the majority of US adults get their news from social media, fake news stories can influence election results and even cause violence.

In fact, in December 2016, an armed North Carolina man travelled to Washington DC and opened fire at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, motivated by a fake online news story accusing the pizzeria of hosting a paedophile ring run by the Democratic Party leaders.

These stories tend to go viral quickly. Social media algorithms, such as Facebook's, play a large part in the dissemination of fake news. These algorithms show users content that reflects their interests and engagement history, as well as content that is receiving a lot of engagements in a short amount of time, leading to hyper-acceleration of fake and misleading news.

A case study by the New York Times shows how a tweet by a user with no more than 40 followers went viral and was shared 16,000 times on Twitter. The now-deleted post consists of a picture of charter buses lined up with a claim that they were being used to bus in paid anti-Trump protestors to Austin, Texas.

The story was picked up by several hyper-partisan Facebook pages (and was shared and 350,000 times on Facebook) and by Reddit, before making rounds through conservative blogs and eventually even being cited by Donald Trump on his personal Twitter account.

In this information age and hyperlinked world, speed of information and sensationalised partisan stories take precedence at the expense of truth.

Top-down disinformation

In addition to fake news stories spread by regular users, the Trump presidency has shown an unprecedented disregard for facts and truth. The President and his mouthpieces Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway are known for continuously making claims and statements that are demonstrably false.

At the recent press conference for example, Trump was challenged by a reporter after he repeatedly said that his electoral college win of 306 votes is the largest since President Ronald Reagan.

Informed citizenry is not possible without the aggregation, dissemination, and scrutiny of information and knowledge

To the reporter correcting him, stating that President Obama got 365 and 332 while George H.W. Bush got 426 votes, Trump responded "I was given that information, I don't know."

Similarly, Conway cited a made-up "Bowling Green Massacre" to defend Trump's travel ban, claiming the media does not cover all terrorist attacks, while Spicer repeatedly cited a non-existent terror attack in Atlanta as a justification for Trump's attempted travel ban on seven Muslim majority countries.

Press Secretary Spicer also falsely insisted the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration was "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration". Conway corroborated these falsehoods by saying Spicer merely gave "alternative facts," thus creating a new level of cover for misinformation and disinformation by government.

This patterns goes beyond making-up stories and making false claims. President Trump even threatens the very integrity of scientific research by calling polls that show negative views of his policies "fake news" and establishing biased GOP polls to create his own "facts".

Read more: Trump and Assad's fascist manual: 101 - fake news

Immediately after the conference, the GOP sent out a mass email urging supporters to fill out what they called the "Mainstream Media Accountability Survey," which was anything but scientific.

The 25-question survey was sent to only a select group of supporters, was filled with leading questions and wording that is biased against the media, and does not ask for demographic information in order to weight the results.

This is an attempt to manipulate the truth, and create a poll that meets no scientific methodology standards in order to use in making claims and perpetuating additional falsehoods.

A threat to American democracy

In addition to hyper-partisan fake stories disseminated by Trump supporters, the Trump Administration has had its share of circulating palpably false claims.

This trend goes further to silence and insult reporters at the White House. Some report that President Trump only took questions from news outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has significant financial ties to Donald Trump. Additionally, Trump stated that he may selectively restrict access to press members, and has the potential (and history) of revoking press credentials.

These stories tend to go viral quickly. Social media algorithms, such as Facebook's, play a large part in the dissemination of fake news

Freedom of the press is one of the pillars of American democracy, and this trend is alarming for the democratic process. While President Trump makes demonstrably false statements, any factual challenge to his claims is being painted as fake, biased, dishonest, and as part of the opposition.

Informed citizenry is not possible without the aggregation, dissemination, and scrutiny of information and knowledge, which are most profoundly achieved through the media serving as the "fourth estate" to monitor and hold accountable the three government branches.

The lack of informed citizenry and press freedom is detrimental to any participatory and representative democracy.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.