The recently concluded French presidential election has seen one of the latest iterations of the long struggle against fake news. Fake news refers to stories which purport to be accounts of true events but which in fact are not. While the intent of some fake news publications is to provide satirical humor, other fake news publications seek to use the spread of their seemingly-true falsehoods to influence the decisions of their gulled readers. As this essay will show, the struggle against fake news has a long history which can be traced back to classical antiquity.
Fake news was a prominent problem in the recent French presidential election campaign. In the days before the first round of the election, researchers from Oxford University found that fake news comprised up to “one-quarter of the political links shared on Twitter in France.” During the campaign for the second round of the election, presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron had to file a complaint with the police “against unknown persons for spreading false information and attempting to manipulate the election” after his challenger, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, brought up slanderous fake news during their televised election debate, falsely accusing him of having opened an offshore bank account in the Cayman Islands “for purposes of tax evasion.”
Two days before the second round of the election, hackers released 9 gigabytes of leaked emails from Macron’s presidential campaign, and campaign officials warned that “authentic documents had been mixed on social media with fake ones to sow ‘doubt and misinformation.’” To minimize the influence of the leak on voters, the French government quickly banned reporting on the contents of the leaked material, warning “news outlets in France that journalists could face criminal charges for publishing or republishing the material.” Due to these efforts, French voters were not swayed by the leak and gave Macron a resounding victory. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, declared that French voters had “said no to the tyranny of fake news.”
Before the election, to prevent its platform from being used for the propagation of fake news to sway French voters, Facebook preemptively cancelled “30,000 fake accounts in France.” Facebook is also currently in the process of identifying and cancelling accounts which “send out ‘fake news’ stories.” However, a separate problem exists of “fake and automated” Facebook accounts which could be mobilized for malicious intent. Even after Facebook had deleted 6 million fake accounts in April, Gannett, a major newspaper publisher, discovered that “the influx of fake accounts” had not stopped, and that the Facebook page of USA Today, one of its properties, was gaining “approximately 1,000 phony likes per day.” Gannett has since invited the FBI to investigate. As we shall shortly see, the problem of fake accounts on Facebook has a troubling parallel on the Twitter platform.
Facebook has also created a new position, head of news products, which includes in its portfolio the responsibility of finding ways to “stop the proliferation of false news on the service.” Alexandra Hardiman, who was formerly with the New York Times, has been appointed to this position. Hardiman’s challenge is especially urgent given that Facebook itself has “confirmed that ‘malicious actors’ tried to game its algorithm” during last year’s US general election to “negatively influence the public perception of one of the candidates (presumed to be Hillary Clinton).”
The fake news problem on Twitter is more serious given the lack of an adequate response from its management. A recent study from the University of Southern California and Indiana University has indicated that up to 48 million Twitter accounts “are in fact bots rather than people.” Indeed, this number is a “conservative estimate” since “complex bots could have shown up as humans in their model.” While some bots “perform useful functions, such as dissemination of news and publications,” a growing number have “malicious applications,” including the “manufacture” of “fake grassroots political support.” The problem with these Twitter bots is not insignificant, as was demonstrated during the run-up to the second round of the French presidential election, when a bot army was activated to promote the spread of the leaked Macron campaign emails. While Twitter has announced plans to “deploy algorithms to detect and punish accounts engaged in abusive conduct,” this effort poses a dilemma for Twitter’s management as there is the risk of a “subscriber outflow if its new technology ends up punishing innocent accounts.”
The fight over fake news goes further back in time than the French presidential election or even last year’s Brexit referendum and US general election. Two decades ago, the physicist Alan Sokal famously hoaxed a humanities journal and exposed the rejection of objective truth by certain disciplines in the humanities that had been caught up in postmodern thought. Indeed, some observers have noted the irony that the spread of leftist postmodern ideas has “produced a culture more widely receptive” to the “irrational and anti-science views” of the resurgent far-right. Even further back in history, the Cold War featured a battle of ideas waged by propagandists on all sides of the conflict. However, we can trace the fight over fake news back to classical antiquity, when Plato explained in his famous dialogue, The Republic, why poets — whose products are at several removes from the truth — should be banned from the ideal city.
The antiquity of Plato’s attack on creative falsehoods is better seen in the context of his contemporaries in the ancient history of ideas. The historical notion of the Axial Age identifies Plato and his successors like Aristotle as key thought leaders in a global efflorescence dating from 800-200 BCE, when religious and philosophical movements familiar to us today emerged and displaced older traditions. As Armstrong (1993) explains, during the Axial Age “each region developed a distinctive ideology … Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India and philosophical rationalism in Europe … In Iran and Israel, Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets respectively evolved different versions of monotheism” (p. 27).
A more promising long-term strategy is to equip the citizenry with the cognitive skills needed to identify and reject fake news.
In his discussion of art and poetry in The Republic, one major problem Plato identifies with the creative arts is that they are removed from the truth. In his discussion of the couch, Plato explains that the carpenter who constructs a couch imitates the perfect form of the couch that had originally been created by the gods. A painter who produces an image of the couch hence produces an artwork that is two removes from the true couch. Extending this analogy to poetry, Plato argues that the poet produces an imitation which is “two removes or so … from the truth” (596a-597e). Worse, not only are the poet’s artworks at a double or even further distance from the truth, for him to “gain a reputation among ordinary people,” his products must be “designed” to excite the emotions of his audiences. Such excitement of the emotions can “cause damage even to good people.”
This, Plato argues, “is justification enough for our refusing to admit him into any city, if it is to be well-governed, because by rousing, nurturing and strengthening this element of the soul he corrupts the element of it that reasons; it’s like handing over a city to people of inferior quality, and putting them in charge while destroying the better sort” (605a-605c). The relevance of this discussion for today’s struggle against fake news is that the products of the creators of fake news are not only by their nature at an absolute distance from the truth, they are intended to arouse emotions like anger and outrage in their gulled audiences. If Plato is prepared to banish poets for producing works which are partial imitations of the truth, he would have no hesitation exiling the creators of fake news for producing stories which are false but which deliberately bear the appearance of truth.
The above may create the impression of Plato as an idealistic naïf. This would however be a wrong impression. Plato’s account of how his ideal city should be built indicates strong realist tendencies. Noting that the proper education of children requires parents to “supervise our story-tellers, approving any story they put together that has the required quality and rejecting any that doesn’t,” and to “induce nurses and mothers to tell children the ones we’ve approved, and to use stories to mould their souls,” the proper maintenance of the ideal city requires thorough control by the rulers over the narratives that the citizens are exposed to (377b-377c). Such permitted narratives may include falsehoods, if these turn out to be necessary for “dealing either with enemies or citizens to the benefit of the city as a whole; everybody else must keep strictly away from anything of the sort” (389b-389c). Plato is even willing to permit poetry to re-enter the city, albeit only the genre which “praises gods and virtuous men,” thereby encouraging virtuous behavior among the citizens (Partee, 1970, p. 219).
The current global fight against fake news echoes the ancient Platonic call for rulers to expel the poets for creating less-than-truthful artworks. In China, for example, the government has recognized the threat to public order posed by “online rumors, harmful information, fake news, news extortion, fake media and fake reporters,” and is undertaking legal reforms to further strengthen its already-strict controls over the internet, including a proposed “qualification system for people working in online news.”
Likewise, the Singapore government has recognized that the country’s laws are “ineffective to stem the circulation of falsehoods, given how quickly they go viral today.” The government views this as an urgent issue as there can be “falsehoods that can cause real harm,” especially from unscrupulous agents who “use fake news to destabilise society, or not caring if it destabilises society so long as they make money.” The government hence is undertaking a review of the current laws to better protect the city-state against the threat of fake news.
In Malaysia, the government has warned the administrators of groups on social media and mobile messaging platforms, “including WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Telegram, and the like,” that they face charges under the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act if they fail in their responsibility to act as a “gatekeeper to filter news before sharing,” and thereby allow fake news to be propagated.
Back in France, the newly-elected President Macron may follow through on his campaign pledge to “regulate the internet” and crack down on the propagation of fake news. If the Macron government does initiate tighter internet regulations, it will not be alone. Elsewhere in Europe, “Germany and the UK … have explored new laws to address social platforms and fake news.”
While laws that penalize the deliberate propagation of fake news are one avenue to combat the threat, a more promising long-term strategy is to equip the citizenry with the cognitive skills needed to identify and reject fake news. Schools in Singapore have been inculcating information literacy in their students, with teachers showing them how to distinguish “fact from opinion, applying logic and verifying the authority of sources,” such that these students will eventually be able to “cross-check the information and views presented with other sources to determine their trustworthiness and usefulness for drawing substantiated conclusions.” The emergence of a global population immune to fake news may be the best hope yet of finally defeating this long-standing threat.
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