A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
There’s a threefold answer to this question, in essence “No. It’s very hard indeed. But we have to try regardless.”
You can’t beat fake news, because lies tend to stick if told often enough. The brain at some point refuses to correct incoming misinformation, especially if it conforms to one’s worldview. That’s how dictatorships were possible in the past and will be in the future.
Trying to counter falsehoods can backfire, because—one way or another—you need to repeat the original allegation. That influences people’s perceptions, even if they know that the statement is not true. More practically, it is very hard to beat fake news coming from the elected government of the richest democracy in the world, employed not only as a principle but also as a tactic to distract attention from other issues.
Despite all this, it is imperative not to succumb to what some in the new U.S. administration have termed “alternative facts”—or whatever the latest incarnation of Orwellian Newspeak is called. For the sanity of current and future generations, the much-maligned mainstream media ought to keep fact checking as much as they can, supported by citizens who care not only about freedom of speech but also about integrity and rectitude.
Tom CarverVice president for communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Yes and no. From now on, fake news will always be with us; it is a virus that travels along the DNA of social media and the Internet, and as long as media platforms like Facebook and Twitter exist, there will be people who take advantage of them to disseminate fake news.
However, we will find ways to live with it, in the same way that we live with other nuisances of our own creation such as pollution and traffic congestion. Societies depend on facts for their successful functioning, so over time this phenomenon will revert to the mean and it will become easier through the use of trusted intermediaries to distinguish the fake from the real. But that does not remove the problem of people—especially politicians—who will continue to use fake news, fully aware that it is fake, for their own ends.
Ryan HeathSenior EU correspondent at POLITICO
Mainstream media and public institutions have to believe that fake news can be beaten, otherwise they’re doomed. Are they doing enough in that regard? No.
The use of soft power through journalism is always a vexed issue. POLITICO is not funded by public organizations, so the issue does not arise often. For those that are publicly funded, the most important thing is that they make their own judgments and ask tough questions of power. This is what distinguishes real journalists from those who use instruments of propaganda or are instructed in what they can write and say.
As for public institutions, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is clear that the alliance can’t and won’t “counter propaganda with propaganda.” The EU is doing more but is replying to Russia’s anti-EU propaganda gun with a sling. The European External Action Service has a team that has catalogued nearly 2,500 disinformation cases. But when journalists were called in for a briefing on January 23, they weren’t allowed to quote the people exposing this disinformation. Journalists were asked to expose fake news via another source in the shadows.
Beating fake news requires excellent journalism and consumers who are willing pay for it. It also requires public bodies to fight disinformation openly and fund journalism in places where there is only propaganda.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
Yes, it can. But only if the backlash against Russian propaganda stops taking up more media space than the fake news itself. Foreign readership of Russia’s flagship media projects such as RT and Sputnik is meager. The problem is that their fake stories, frequently reproduced by little-known, alternative, and often crazy conspiracy-laden websites, are amplified through social networks—and by those who try to push back against them. That makes Moscow look more influential than it actually is.
There should be no illusions about Moscow’s attitudes toward the Western elites who imposed sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. At the same time, the emotional pushback from Western elites over Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may further erode public trust in Western institutions, including the media.
As the first large-scale study commissioned by the European Endowment for Democracy on Russian propaganda argued, beating fake news is first and foremost about promoting quality journalism and rebuilding trust. If lessons are learned from Britain’s vote to leave the EU or from U.S. President Donald Trump’s election victory—such as that identity politics adds to polarization—observers might get better at returning to objective journalistic standards. Rebuilding societies’ trust in institutions requires addressing challenges to the West’s internal cohesion, instead of blaming them on fake news.
Edward LucasSenior editor at the Economist
Fake news is becoming a modish term for news that other decisionmakers and commentators don’t like. The problem is state-sponsored disinformation based on false or stolen information, used to distort political outcomes. And yes, that can be beaten, with a mixture of countermessaging, fact checking and myth busting, media literacy, social pressure and ostracism, and—where necessary and appropriate—legal and regulatory pressure.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
“Yes, but . . .” is my answer.
The logical and ethical answer is yes. On substance, professional journalists know how to check their facts and investigate fake news. Schools of journalism have taught such matters for decades.
The first “but” is that fake news, alternative facts, and news so vague that it cannot be proved wrong have become devices of choice in the political toolboxes of governments and elected officials to draw attention, achieve political goals, or attack opponents. The list of recent news items of this type is very long, from the supposed benefits of leaving the EU during the Brexit campaign to the size of the crowd at U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.
The second “but” concerns the complexity of today’s political news and the abundance of news vehicles. Political developments are increasingly difficult to grasp and often instill fear in citizens, be it on migration, terrorism, war, or climate change. Moreover, fast-developing social media act as accelerators of news, especially unchecked news generated by individuals with no qualification for journalism or by trolls acting on behalf of political actors.
The antidote to fake news should be a renewed ethical commitment from political parties and news organizations together with strong civil-society organizations dedicated to fact checking.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
The Trojan Horse was fake news. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was fake news. Stalin fed fake news to New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize for depicting Russia as a socialist paradise. Italians and Germans were fed daily diets of fake news by Mussolini and Hitler. The Atlantic traced fake news back to English King Henry VIII. It is fashionable now to consider fake news a product of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troll factory at 55 Savushkina Street, Saint Petersburg, while U.S. President Donald Trump favors what one of his aides called “alternative facts.”
Journalists debate how to cover the Trump administration and its utter disregard for facts and accountability. It is a waste of time. There is no other way to disinfect false news than by practicing the truth, humbly and steadily. Aristotle’s wonderful definition of truth—“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”—still works and will save us. But it will not be easy, because, in the words of John 3:19, “men loved darkness rather than light.”
James RogersDirector of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College and senior editor of European Geostrategy
There is absolutely nothing new about fake news: it is as old as political warfare itself. Spreading lies and propaganda (what is today called fake news and disinformation) can help confuse opponents, preventing them from understanding a given situation—and thus, ultimately, from realizing their interests.
The problem today is twofold. First, some in the West are calling any information they dislike fake news, because it does not fit with their ideological worldview. This was seen on both sides of the Brexit debate before, during, and after the decision of the British people in June 2016 to leave the European Union.
The second problem concerns the advent of social media, which allows for the rapid spread of information, fake or otherwise. Western education systems have failed to equip citizens to separate fact from fiction, because educators simply could not foresee the speed at which the Internet—and social media in particular—would emerge and spread. If greater emphasis is now placed on teaching young people critical-thinking skills and explicitly on helping them spot lies and fake news online, future generations should be better equipped to identify those who seek to deceive them.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
Gwendolyn SasseSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin
Only indirectly and gradually. Given the volume, speed, and amplification of content transmitted online and offline, the key challenge is to distinguish between fact and fiction—or between genuine debate and unfounded statements. Some fakes are easy to spot, while others require expert knowledge to recognize and disprove. In some circles, the contempt for experts is growing, making this correction of fake news more difficult.
We don’t live in a post-fact era but rather in one in which the urgency to check, question, and contextualize statements presented as facts is becoming more apparent by the day. In response to a journalist’s question of whether he intended to speak the truth in his role as U.S. President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer said on January 23 that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” There could not be a more concise summary of the problem.
The race to beat fake news stories by denying or correcting them one by one is unwinnable. Instead, the only way to keep fake news in check is to create an environment in which alternative sources of information are readily available and accessible, thereby enabling people to make their own informed judgments. Journalists, analysts, and academics have a particular obligation to contribute to this process.
Jamie SheaDeputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO
There is no easy answer. Anybody can manufacture fake news. It is also profitable. A U.S. student made $20,000 after concocting a story about fake election ballots for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. States are getting in on the act as they see how social media can rapidly disseminate fake news and lend it an aura of credibility.
Does this mean that opponents of fake news are helpless? No. As English writer George Orwell reportedly said, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The response to fake news must be more revolutionary.
Traditional media must hold to account those who trade in fake news and be wary of publishing material that has been hacked or stolen, except when there is a demonstrated public interest. The media must not be bullied into silence but focus on traditional reporting and fact checking. A disoriented public will turn back to quality journalism—provided it still exists.
Governments must empower press councils to enforce objective standards in the media by exposing and penalizing outlets that deliberately convey fake news and refuse to take it down or correct it. They can also provide material to demonstrate the falsehood of a story. Using satellite imagery to dispute Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that there were no Russian tanks in Crimea in 2014 is a good example.