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Freedom of the Press, Fake News, and Disinformation

Image representing internet misinformation: WiFi symbol turning into a liar's long-nosed face, emanating from a person working at a computer

By Julia Nichols

If you grew up in the U.S., you may have learned in school that the media is the fourth branch of the government. The media is not part of the federal government, but it “checks” public officials by fact checking their statements and providing the public with inside information they wouldn’t otherwise have. The free press is an important part of any democracy because it keeps voters privy to what is really going on, preventing politicians from getting reelected based on lies and falsehoods.

A recent global rise in government suppression of journalists, combined with fake news and disinformation online, make it more difficult to have a well-informed electorate in 2020. The UN Secretary General and the UNESCO Director General have highlighted both the importance of ensuring freedom of the press and combatting disinformation. To fight what they call the “infodemic,” the UN has launched two social media campaigns called “Together for Facts, Science and Solidarity” and “Don’t go Viral” as well as a media Resource Center of Responses to COVID-19. The UN is trying to combat issues surrounding the freedom of the press and access to accurate information.

Suppressing Journalism

When a politician wants to avoid being held accountable for their lies or mistakes, they can try to avert scrutiny by silencing or discrediting the press. Leaders in countries like China and Russia silence the media by intimidating journalists and their sources or by passing laws that force journalists to censor themselves. North Korea, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Cuba, Iran, and China are among the worst countries when it comes to press freedom. Among the tactics used are imprisoning journalists and controlling and limiting internet access. In these countries, dissidents’ opinions are not shared in the media.

The suppression and discrediting of journalists is seen around the world, and because the U.S. has such strict enforcement of the 1st Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”), people may think that it is immune to a weakening of the fourth branch of government. However, President Trump has found a way to undermine media scrutiny: He cries “fake news” when the media criticizes him. Rather than silence the media by preventing certain things from being published, he encourages people to stop listening. While attempting to discredit the media is not new, the cry of “fake news” is the latest iteration of this tactic. Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, and officials in Myanmar and Russia have all invoked “fake news” for the sake of discrediting information that criticizes their government. This new tactic, popular among dictators and authoritarian regimes, was created by the United States President.

The “fake news” approach is especially insidious because, ostensibly, the press is as free as ever in the U.S. However, if journalists are not listened to or trusted, their fact checks are ignored. Unfortunately, President Trump’s accusations of fake news have been believed. According to a Gallup poll, only 14% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats reported a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in mass media, a historic low. This is important because if citizens believe falsehoods about politicians and issues pertinent to public policy, they cast votes based on inaccurate information. The widespread distrust in media threatens the integrity of democracies.

The term “fake news” originally referred to sites that appear to be trustworthy news organizations but that post fake stories and do not adhere to the journalistic guidelines that reputable news organizations follow (a non-comprehensive list of fake news sites was compiled by the Daily Dot). On Facebook, the top 50 fake news articles received 22 million shares, reactions, and comments in 2018. A study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election may be linked to people believing in certain fake news articles, including stories that asserted she was gravely ill and that she had approved selling weapons to ISIS. Fake news sites are a problem because they can gain serious traction online and make many people believe—and vote based upon—patent falsehoods. However, invoking “fake news” whenever an article does not align with one’s own agenda sows dangerous distrust and disinterest in mainstream media. In more extreme cases, like in Egypt and Rwanda, the government will use fake news as a pretense for silencing views that criticize the government.

Dueling megaphones shout "Facts" and "Fake News"

Spreading Disinformation

Aside from fake news and attempts to discredit the media, political campaigns have been spreading disinformation and lies online for the sake of getting elected. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign created fake Facebook pages and accounts posing as community pages for Filipinos. Once a page had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, the campaign had its employees create fake Facebook accounts and post crime stories to the page. Then, the employees commented on the posts and falsely attributed the crimes to drug cartels. The page was specifically designed to increase Duterte’s popularity because he ran on countering drug violence. Duterte was elected, perhaps because citizens had an amplified fear of drug crimes based on false evidence. This cunning tactic was successful because people thought they were on an innocuous community page and thus were not primed to inspect every comment for its truth. Furthermore, when a campaign is making a concerted effort to spread lies, it can pile on so many comments that it becomes extremely difficult to figure out the truth.

The Trump campaign used a similar but distinct practice of using microtargeted ads and messages with false or misleading information. Microtargeting is using people’s data to put them in a category or give them a psychological profile and then sending messages or showing ads that are specifically tailored to appeal to that profile. Because of the U.S.’s expansive right to free speech, these tailored messages do not have to be based in fact. These ads are seen and evaluated among small, homogeneous groups of people on the internet who are likely to be biased in favor of the information they are shown. As a result, the messages in microtargeted content are often not sufficiently scrutinized and people may be easily led to believe in falsehoods or lies.

Disinformation During Pandemic

COVID-19 has made tangible the negative impacts of widespread distrust in media and disinformation online. It is no longer a purely theoretical or downstream problem: People will die because their fellow citizens do not wear masks or socially distance. Globally, there has been a plethora of fake news and disinformation surrounding COVID-19, especially concerning how it can be treated or tested. False claims include that one can test whether one has the virus by holding one’s breath for 10 seconds and that the virus can be treated by injecting household disinfectants. There is much misinformation around masks, namely the false claims that they can deprive you of oxygen, cause carbon dioxide poisoning, or weaken the immune system. This disinformation can be seriously harmful because some people attempt dangerous home remedies and refuse to wear masks.

Additionally, fake news and disinformation can reinforce and legitimize dangerous hostilities to certain marginalized groups. In the wake of COVID-19, people of East Asian descent have been discriminated against after conspiracy theories were spread on the internet alleging that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab. President Trump continues to refer to the virus as the “China Virus,” a name that is misleading and that bolsters dangerous animosity towards Chinese people and people perceived to be of Chinese descent. In India, disinformation about Muslims purposely spreading the virus led to boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses and violence against Muslims across India.  

Searching for Truth

In your own life, you can help to combat the discrediting of journalists by supporting your local news organizations with subscriptions or donations. You might also consider supplementing your news intake with news from organizations with less political bias. Americans consider PBS News to be among the most unbiased and trusted news sources in the U.S.

Additionally, there are steps you can take to avoid being fooled by disinformation and fake news. There are free, online fact-checking websites like Snopes and PolitiFact that can help you sort fact from fiction. When reading news articles online, especially those found on social media, pay close attention to the name of the source and search for its credibility. Some fake news sites have names very similar to reputable sites, like the now debunked site "abcnews.com.co". None of us is impervious to being fooled by disinformation and fake news, so take care to verify the information you see online.

If you feel comfortable doing so, engaging in respectful and informed conversations with others is another way to combat disinformation and fake news. These conversations can be difficult, but some research indicates that people are most likely to change others’ minds when they hedge their statements. “Hedging” means to express some uncertainty with phrases like “this suggests” or “I believe” or “it looks like.” One possible explanation for the success of this tactic is that people feel less defensive when views contrary to their own are expressed with some modesty and are not over-claimed. If you see that a friend of yours has shared a fake news article, you can politely indicate that the article is fake, perhaps by privately messaging them or commenting that the source may be worth looking into further. Intellectual humility can be an important part of having productive discussions with others. Intellectually humble people also tend to be less easily manipulated and more open-minded. While not everyone needs or ought to be in the business of changing other peoples’ minds, it can be useful to know what types of strategies work best.

There is a tension between needing free press and speech on the one hand and, on the other, needing to combat the problems that arise from fake news and disinformation. Combating actual fake news and disinformation is necessary to maintain a well-informed electorate, and we must also maintain widespread freedom of the press. The United Nations has tried to strike this balance by stressing the importance of both elements. The UN’s campaign to fight the “infodemic” includes disseminating factual information online, partnering with companies like WhatsApp and Facebook to send accurate information directly to people, and supporting journalists and civil society in their efforts to combat disinformation and fake news.

About the Author

Julia Nichols

Julia Nichols is an intern with the UU Office at the United Nations for the summer of 2020. She is conducting research on migration justice, police militarization, and free speech.

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