By Joe McNamee

We have heard a lot about fake news over recent months. We have heard urgent calls for action from politicians to deal with this new problem – governments should regulate truth, Facebook should regulate truth, new ministries of truth should regulate the truth. The political world is clear – somebody should do something, quickly!

In 2003, the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks undertook a survey of what they very carefully called “misperceptions” about the Iraq war that correlated closely to support for that war. Researchers looked at three “misperceptions” – that there were

  1. links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda;
  2. that weapons of mass destruction had been found, and
  3. that world public opinion was favourable to the war.

The survey was conducted from January through September 2003 with seven different polls probing the perceptions of a total of 8634 respondents. Overall, it was found that 80% of people who relied on Fox News as their main news source had somehow ended up believing at least one of these three pieces of fake news. This compared with a little less than half (47%) of those who said that print media were their primary source of news and just less than a quarter (23%) of those who said that PBS-NPR (public TV and radio) was their main source.

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Among all three “misperceptions”, the trend was strikingly consistent as regards news sources that were relied upon. In relation to those who held the “misperception” that clear evidence existed of Iraq working closely with Al Qaeda, 67% of individuals who relied on Fox as their news source, compared with 40% who relied on print media and just 16% who relied on public service TV and radio.

The report also looked at correlations between supporters of the incumbent president (who obviously supported the war) and “misperceptions”. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong correlation. Crucially, the study also showed that there was a very significant correlation between news sources and likelihood of “misperceptions”, even among this group – 78% of Bush supporters who relied on Fox believed in “misperceptions”, compared with 50% who relied on public broadcasters.

Crucially, those with none of the “misperceptions” opposed the war, while “each additional misperception is accompanied by sharply higher support for the war”. Indeed, a different poll showed that 80% of supporters of the war indicated that “Iraq’s connection with groups like Al-Qaeda” was a major reason for their support.

In short, a war whose cost in human lives is, according to lower estimates, at least 100 000 civilians – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters… actual people with dreams and hopes, not numbers – appears (recognising that correlation is not causality) to have gained considerable support as a result of “misperceptions” that can be linked to certain news sources. This did not inspire political outrage about “fake news”.

The Iraq “misperceptions” survey is now 13 years old, yet we appear to have learned nothing from it. We have witnessed years of mass harvesting of data for the purpose of manipulation, feeding an unaccountable data trawling industry, yet we appear to have underestimated the danger. Now that data industry has created an opportunity to generate 20 000 US dollars for one opportunist fake news website. We have online platforms channelling our world view into narrow “filter bubbles” that make society more susceptible to being targeted with misinformation. Now, instead of learning from this, we appear unable to respond rationally.

If we could end the fake news about “fake news” being news, we might move a little closer to finding a meaningful answer. The medicine proposed to magically bring an end to misinformation is to ask the data trawling industry to become the arbiters of truth… to invite the companies that are at the origin of the noxious filter-bubbles to filter out the fake news… not too much… just enough. Please.

If we could be honest about the deep roots of the phenomenon, and the dangers of many of the remedies being proposed by policy-makers desperate to be seen to be doing something, we might actually get to the destination.

The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll: Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war (02.10.2003)
http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Iraq/IraqMedia_Oct03/IraqMedia_Oct03_rpt.pdf

From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece (18.01.2017)
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html

In race against fake news, Google and Facebook stroll to the starting line (25.01.2017)
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/technology/google-facebook-fake-news.html

Regulations are a bigger threat than fake news (12.01.2017)
https://www.ifex.org/international/2017/01/12/fake_news_regulation/

(Contribution by Joe McNamee, EDRi)

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