Let’s not underestimate fake news — it’s a real threat to democracy

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By Hal Foster

As a longtime journalist and journalism professor, I have watched in horror as fake news has swept across the world like a tidal wave. Make no mistake about it: Deliberate disinformation is not just an annoyance, like a pesky mosquito. It is a threat to democracy. It is even a threat to people’s lives.“Come on, you’re exaggerating,” doubters might say. “It is ridiculous to say fake news is a threat to people’s lives.” The nay-sayers should check the stories about fake news precipitating scores of murders in India last year.

The stories dealt with rumors — spread by WhatsApp — that child kidnapping gangs were filtering in to various Indian cities. Believing the stories true, locals killed many people that they didn’t recognize and they believed to be kidnappers. All of the stories proved false, which meant that those who were killed were innocent.

In addition to depriving people of life itself, there is ample evidence that fake news is undermining democracy.

America’s founding fathers believed that government should be in the hands of the people, not dictators. The idea was based on the notion that voters would look at all the information available about candidates and policies and make rational choices.

But this presumed the information that people based their choices on was truthful. And, in general, for more than 230 years, in the United States, it was. Not in every case, but in most cases.

Then, about 20 years ago, the Internet era arrived, with its ability to reach a mass audience instantaneously — but also to feed this audience lies as well as the truth.

This has led to anti-democratic forces — many in other countries — unleashing torrents of lies on democracies these days. A growing body of evidence indicates that, as a result, more and more democracies are choosing leaders and policies they would not choose if they knew the truth. America’s founding fathers would be aghast if they knew this.

Just how much of a threat fake news poses to democracy became apparent in 2016, when a lot of evidence surfaced that it could have affected the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.

The U.S. election hinged on four key states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — which the winning candidate took by narrow margins. Evidence surfaced during and after the election that another country was spreading massive amounts of fake news in those states to turn voters against the candidate it disliked.

That country also unleashed an explosion of fake news aimed at persuading Britons to vote to pull out of the EU — an outcome that would weaken the multi-country bulwark of democracy. As we all know, Britons voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU.

What lessons can Moldova — or any country, for that matter — learn from what happened in the United States and Britain and about reports of fake news being used to try undermining a number of other European democracies in recent years? 

One lesson is that fake news is a big deal. It is not just a mosquito whose buzzing can ruin your sleep. When it is able to affect peoples’ choice of leaders and policies, it is a threat to democracy itself.

Another lesson is that both long-running, new and aspiring democracies need to do something about fake news, not just shrug it off. Political leaders and civil society need to develop the will to stop it, then mobilize the resources necessary to transform this will into action.  Unless it is fighting fake news, a country is ceding the choice of its leaders and policies to nations who are using fake news against it. In most cases, the predator nation’s interests are different — and inimical — to those of the nation it is preying on.

Over the past decade, much of the world has come to the realization that fake news threatens the very foundation of democracy. A lot of my Moldovan friends tell me their country has yet to have its fake-news epiphany. If that’s the case, I hope it happens soon — because as someone who follows American and European politics closely, I have seen the harm that fake news has done to other countries.

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