A Different Way of Thinking About “Fake News”
University of Colorado Boulder
Tobias Hopp is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research focuses on issues related to mis- and disinformation, online political expression, and political knowledge. His scholarly work has appeared in outlets such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Human Communication Research, and New Media & Society. He is also the co-founder of a startup organization that uses artificial intelligence to identify quality news content at scale. He received his PhD from the University of Oregon in 2014.
In the initial and uncertain days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Ghebreyesus observed that the international community was tasked with simultaneously confronting both an epidemic and an infodemic. While the viral attributes of the novel Coronavirus were the physical agent responsible for widespread levels of sickness and death around the globe, the glut of false, misleading, and rumor-laden information being actively spread on social networks and other digital platforms was creating and replicating social conditions that were conducive to the virus’ rapid proliferation.
For at least the last decade—and perhaps especially since Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in 2016 and the emergence of COVID in 2020—public officials such as Ghebreyesus have repeatedly expressed serious concern that the modern (i.e., digitally oriented) information environment is rife with incorrect, misleading, and otherwise untrustworthy information. This repeated and ongoing collision between credible and non-credible information ultimately forces individuals to parse through a blurred cloud of truth, half-truth, and mis-truth when trying to obtain critical sensemaking information about the surrounding world. When faced with such complicated information environments, people tend to fall back on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to evaluate and categorize information. While heuristic processing confers many benefits on human decision-making, it also can result in an over-reliance on previously-held assumptions and a tendency towards confirming, rather than challenging, things wished to be true.
Countermedia information is mediated content that combines produced and user-created information to generate informational narratives that seek to challenge (or counter) the depictions of reality found in traditional mainstream news content.
Despite widespread concern over the quality of political and social information being consumed online, there exists an ongoing disagreement among scholars and policymakers on how to best define and conceptualize the “bad” information that exists—to varying degrees—in most peoples’ online social networks. Frequently employed terms such as mis-and-disinformation and fake news present real definitional issues, and there are reasons to believe that the use of these terms may often serve to confuse, rather than clarify, the problem. For example, misinformation refers to incorrect information that is inadvertently shared while disinformation refers to information that is known to be false and shared with an intent to harm. But how can we, as outside observers, really and truly know a communicator’s intent? And, furthermore, is the external obtainment of an unimpeachable understanding of a communicator’s knowledge set and intentions at the time of message construction an evaluation standard worth pursuing? In the case of the term fake news, scholars have pointed out that the phrase is prone to politicization and may actually serve to undermine trust in the mainstream press. More broadly, much of the content referred to as “fake news” is not totally factually incorrect, but, instead, biased, misleading, hyper-partisan, or lacking key details.
For these reasons, I have, over the past several years, begun to use the term “countermedia” when speaking and writing about the information infodemic. In this work, I typically define countermedia information as mediated content that combines produced and user-created information to generate informational narratives that seek to challenge (or counter) the depictions of reality found in traditional mainstream news content. This information is commonly framed as something that the mainstream press “won’t tell you.” Countermedia content may contain claims that are untrue. More frequently, however, the countermedia present information in a biased, misleading, or hyper-partisan manner. The language used in countermedia content is characteristically designed to evoke negative emotional states because anger and fear-inducing content drives online virality while suppressing critical evaluation.
Ultimately, the strength of the countermedia concept is that it allows us to avoid engaging with unknowable externalities (e.g., communicator knowledge and intent) or unproductive conversations on the nature of truth, and, instead, focus on the role played by “bad” information in the broader democratic sphere. Admittedly, scholars such as myself sometimes have a tendency to, perhaps unproductively, focus on issues of definition rather than meaningfully evaluating and addressing “real world” outcomes. In this case, however, I believe that establishing a workable means of defining the phenomena is an important step in addressing the situation. By moving away from generally unproductive diagnoses of what is and is not true (typically attempted by institutional fact-checking), or what a communicator’s intentions were when sending a message, the countermedia concept gives us a framework for understanding why and how problematic information moves through the information ecosystem.
By recognizing that there exists a broad class of countermedia content providers that straightforwardly seek to inject low-quality and often hyper-partisan information into the public sphere, governments can scrutinize the fraudulent financial incentives that often sustain these entities.
For untruthful, misleading, or otherwise low-quality information to be impactful in the public sphere, it must reach a large number of different types of people. There are an untold number of absurd, outlandish, and bizarre claims made on social media every day. In isolation, this information is—at least from a broad social perspective—harmless. It is only when these claims reach and persuade significant numbers of people that they exert a meaningful impact on our social and political discourse. The most impactful countermedia claims are, as such, those that become so popular they are reported on, fact-checked, and analyzed by the mainstream press. Even though these topical claims (related to, for example, Pizzagate or COVID-19 vaccines or election integrity) may be labeled as incorrect, false, or misleading by the mainstream press, the mere fact that the information is being addressed by the news indicates that the issue has entered the public debate. In this way, the press can inadvertently serve as an agent of amplification.
From a regulatory perspective, democratic governments have very few viable options when addressing false, misleading, and hyper-partisan claims online. The ability to speak one’s mind is a critical aspect of a free society. However, by recognizing that there exists a broad class of countermedia content providers that straightforwardly seek to inject low-quality and often hyper-partisan information into the public sphere, governments can scrutinize the fraudulent financial incentives that often sustain these entities. Media organizations, by recognizing that they are in competition with a class of bad faith content machines, can allocate reporting resources to the funders, tactics, and practices of these informational sources and also seek to be more selective when publicizing countermedia claims (even for the purposes of fact-checking). By acknowledging that there exists a broad group of content providers that primarily seek to undermine the mainstream press, social media platforms can make more responsible choices when it comes to algorithmically boosting countermedia sites.
When offering the above suggestions, I often get accused of acting as a sort of apologist for the mainstream media. I do not think the mainstream press is perfect or, itself, without need for reform. But baseline journalistic norms (however imperfectly realized) around objectivity, truth, verifiability, accountability, and transparency are critical for a stable and tolerant public sphere that prioritizes long-term public and democratic health. Countermedia producers have adopted none of these norms because, fundamentally, they represent movement towards a repressed, restricted, and, ultimately, undemocratic public organ.