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'Fake news' can't be fixed by more journalism, not when our democracy is broken

A “more media” strategy will inevitably lead to more “anti-media” attacks.
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A Greentarget survey found that while 84 percent of journalists think the term “fake news” is contributing to the delegitimization of journalism, only 14 percent think their own work has been significantly altered because of it.MSNBC / Getty Images

How do you solve a problem like fake news? According to a survey of journalists by Greentarget, a counter-misinformation consultancy, journalists, who are on the front lines of the war against bad information in all its forms, have an unsurprising answer: more journalism! That’s been my answer, too, on this very website. Unfortunately, since I wrote that piece in November 2020, it’s become clearer that using more journalism to fight false facts is a fantasy.

Fake news is not so much a problem as it is the symptom of a problem.

That’s because fake news is not so much a problem as it is the symptom of a problem. It is an inevitable consequence of how we talk to each other, why we talk to each other, what information we need from each other and how we feel about each other relative to what we believe. Journalists think of it as a symptom of too few journalists, but consider: More and better news sources will not make younger Democrats more likely to break bread with younger Republicans, or vice versa.

The Greentarget survey found that while 84 percent of journalists think the term “fake news” is contributing to the delegitimization of journalism, only 14 percent think their own work has been significantly altered because of it. Ninety-three percent said fake news harms journalism; 6 percent said they think Big Tech’s monitoring of social media has had a “significant impact,” and more than 90 percent dismissed media literacy efforts as insignificant — meaning they don’t change the way people consume news.

Buried in here is an epistemic problem: Journalists still see themselves as gatekeepers, when almost no one else in the world does. Whatever Big Tech does or does not do, it has most certainly replaced the gatekeeping function, with technology optimized to rapidly disperse uncurated information.

The problem is that other institutional pressures that serve as basic buttresses for deliberative democracy are in retreat: the rule of law, the sense that government is on your side and can get things done and the belief that diversity of everything — humans, groups, opinions, approaches to policy — is a common good.

In a new paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jenna Bednar noted the big problem with trying to reverse polarization, especially using elite institutions:

When elites catalyze fear, they goad a benign human tendency to assimilate and differentiate into a runaway process, building to the point where polarization is irreversible. Counterintuitively, affective polarization may also lead to extremism; empirical studies suggest that deliberation among the like-minded will push the group’s position to the extreme of the members’ initial positions. Neither individual commitment to democratic norms nor elite moderation can restore bipartisanship. In fact, evidence points to the contrary; in a polarized world, voters prioritize their partisan interests over democratic principles, and electoral safeguards fail to protect democracy.

The alternative sounds awful: Just let people be? Bednar proposed that a renewed commitment to federalism, which would entail a degree of tolerance for highly intolerable state policies, might allow polarized frustrations an outlet. The anger needs to go somewhere.

Whether we should do this is immaterial; it’s happening. Texas has all but banned abortions; Florida’s Covid-19 policies are designed to benefit a potential Republican presidential candidate’s aspirations; the specter of teaching students proper history is deemed “critical race theory” by half a dozen states, whether the label is properly applied or not.

Even a journalism that understands its own biases is not enough.

And yes, a renewed federalism would have to work in the other direction, too. It would ask of the anti-media right a degree of tolerance about linguistic evolution and police violence and transgender rights that it seems congenitally incapable of mustering. I don’t see Americans feeling that charitable.

Part of the problem with a “more media” strategy is that it will inevitably lead to more “anti-media” attacks. The anti-media side, right now, is winning. It’s the side that deliberately constructs journalism so as to render it legitimate only when it confirms the cultural triggers of social conservatives; it uses illogic, appeals to bathos and appropriates the good faith of journalistic norms in the service of undermining democratic institutions. Even a journalism that understands its own cosmopolitan and liberal biases is not — and will never be — enough.

On a national level, it’s not more news that’s needed. Please, no more niche national news outlets. What is needed is more relentless, sophisticated and unyielding pressure on the superspreaders of misinformation, especially the people who profit from lies. Nandini Jammi targets the advertisers of false information mavens like Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent turned right-wing radio host who gets mad, and gets personal, in response because what she’s doing works. Nothing else does: not changes to Facebook’s algorithm, not legacy media pressure, not fact checks.

That said, I do think more local news free from corporate encumbrances, focused on accountability reporting and with really good distribution platforms is vital. But so is, for example, a Florida-based site about sports that is reported and published in Spanish. Building trust around shared activities — like the experience of sports, or entertainment, or gaming — can be a gateway to sharing sensibilities about common democratic facts.

Addressing the country’s misinformation problem is not a short-term project; it’s one that will take years — and a lot more than journalism — to accomplish.