"How does America get its news? How does it know who or what to trust?" BBC special correspondent Allan Little asked in a year-end look at the fake-news phenomenon, pointing first to The Tribune-Democrat, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania: "You find conflicting opinions in its pages, a diversity of views. It offers its readers a shared public reality within which they can disagree, dispute, and challenge each other." This model doesn't appear to be thriving in the digital world, he adds. "Traditional journalism is losing its power to the internet and the echo chamber of social media. There are two Americas now, each listening to its own preferred news sources, two parallel public realities."
"Are there also now two Britains, each with their own parallel truths?" Little asked. He said no, "there is still a shared public reality in British politics, a common square where news is generated and consumed, but it's gone in America and it could go here, too. The dangers to democracy are obvious." In case they aren't, Little spoke to an expert on Russia, who argued that one of Vladimir Putin's masterstrokes was creating a news environment ruled by a fog of uncertainty, where the lack any common truth lets him govern as a strongman. "That's not great for democracy, is it?" Little asked. Still, democracies also value freedom of speech, he noted, so "who in the new media landscape is to police what's valid and what's fake, what's true and what's post-truth?"
It's a good question. Facebook? Advertising revenue? Anne Applebaum, in a first-person Washington Post account of being smeared by a Russian fake-news campaign, notes that this isn't the first time a new technology has been exploited to bad ends. "The printing press, praised by Martin Luther as 'God's highest and extremest act of Grace,' led to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation — and a century of bloody religious wars," she writes. "The invention of radio led to Hitler and Stalin, who understood the new medium better than anyone else, as well as to the 20th century's totalitarian regimes and ideological wars."
Eventually, things settled down, and "someday we will reach equilibrium, too," she adds. "But until then we should be prepared for political turmoil of a kind we thought was long behind us." Read her column at The Washington Post for an intimate look at how Russia's disinformation apparatus works, and why American fell for it.