Rasmus Nielsen discusses fake news and what to do about it, with Richard Lofthouse

Rasmus Nielsen‘Fake news’ was the Collins dictionary ‘phrase of the year’ in 2017, but as Rasmus Nielsen points out early in our discussion, it resists easy definition and has been used by politicians to attack trusted media sources.

He doesn’t voluntarily mention US President Donald Trump but it’s impossible to ignore the recent spectacle of him stage-managing an ‘award ceremony’ for fake news, which immediately resulted in online coverage with headlines such as ‘Are Trump’s Fake News Awards Fake?’

Apart from the likely confusion over these truth and counter-truth claims, in the minds of the public fake news can mean loads of things from incessant online advertising that tracks their every move, to very low trust in media sources and journalism, and only finally to deliberately fabricated stories on social media.

Nielsen, Director of Research for Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication, would like to see some focus now that the term has become ‘ubiquitous.’

‘My personal view is that one should reserve the term, if it is used at all, to the narrowest sense of fake news: information that is false and fabricated, and used either for profit by malicious actors who want to profit from momentary interest, or more perniciously, by state-backed information operations that deliberately try to subvert political processes in other countries by creating confusion, distrust and doubt.’

Only in this way, argues Nielsen, can we distinguish it from plain old propaganda and misinformation, which is as old as the hills.

‘The available evidence suggests so far that the reach of fake news is more limited than is often assumed; the volume of it is more limited than is often assumed, and the most powerful driver of the problem is probably state action – foreign intervention in political processes in different countries.’

Nonetheless, Nielsen has recently joined a newly constituted European Commission working group on the red-hot subject ‘what to do about fake news.’

He can’t discuss the inner workings of the group but he can express his opinions on the subject.

‘I don’t see it as my job to tell policymakers what to do, but I would like to bring research and evidence to this discussion to make sure that we have a proper understanding of the scale and scope of the problem and the scope of possible interventions – including of course unintended consequences beyond the narrow scope itself.’

Trump is actually ‘quite late to the party’ for ‘weaponising’ the term Nielsen reminds me, mentioning Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, certain states in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines and India. More worrying is the meddling in one country’s affairs by another, with two particularly troubling revelations that shook policymakers last year.

The first was the revelation that Russia had spent $46,000 placing divisive political advertising on Facebook in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 US Presidential election. Combined with other messages seeded by operatives and shared by ordinary users, the Russian campaign is believed to have reached as many as 126 million Americans.

The second concerned a realization in the UK that Russia may have also ramped up efforts to distort the Referendum that led to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, although the exact scope and impact of this activity, some of which was carried out via Twitter, remains unclear.

There’s no obvious or easy way to legislate against such activity.

The only state that legislated last year against the perceived might of the online giants, among them the so-called ‘duopoly’ Facebook and Google, is Germany. The German government threatened fines of up to $50 million if hate speech or other ‘obviously illegal’ material was not taken down within 24 hours.

By doing this, however, the German government appeared to hand to those commercial companies the right to define ‘hateful.’ Nielsen reminds me that polarized opinion, sometimes very polarized, is part of free speech. Who decides when it becomes ‘hate speech’ and what if the tech giants now become over-zealous, to avoid heavy fines?

In the widely anticipated Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018 by Oxford’s Research Associate at the Reuters Institute, Nic Newman, he actually predicts that one of this year’s themes will be anger at what will be perceived as censorship by these companies, especially if deletions are driven blindly by algorithms.

Nielsen’s approach is more nuanced. He insists that ‘prevention is better than cure,’ meaning that civil society can and should be ‘armed’ against the fakers, whether they are Macedonian teenagers dreaming up sensational stories or aggressive states. He agrees that digital literacy is a key component of education now for all children, and where it isn’t, it needs to be.

Concerning what a government can do, he reminds me that many countries support private sector media indirectly through for example VAT exemptions to printed newspapers, ‘an elegant solution because it doesn’t put politicians into the editorial driving seat.’

But this sort of mechanism to encourage ‘trusted sources’ hasn’t been updated to the digital realities of 2018, he says. In many countries, these forms of support only apply to offline media, not the ever-more important online world.

Aside from restraining ‘fake news’ to its strict sense, I note that the European Commission high level group that Nielsen has joined has misinformation in its sights as well. Is this then a larger problem than fake news per se?

Nielsen talks about a ‘rambunctious public sphere’ and uses the term again later on. ‘The technologies that have allowed the likes of Facebook are hugely permissive, hugely enabling. Yet in the same way they are hugely vulnerable to abuse.’

The rambunctious quality has shot up because of the speed and scale of the technology behind online platforms. The word means ‘uncontrollably exuberant.’ It can boil over into speed over substance, and then slip further into untruth.

‘I like Napoleon’s quip that ‘quantity has a certain quality all of its own,’ says Nielsen. It’s not even that all misinformation is spread maliciously, he reminds me. What about the parents who came to believe that vaccines were harmful to their children? They were passing that view, that belief, to friends as if it were factually true.

‘In this sense the public discourse has become confused.’ The scale and speed with which new ideas or prejudices swirl around the net can overwhelm sources that would traditionally have held sway or at least pronounced in time-honoured ways.

We agree that genuinely independent public service media can play an important role (the BBC and several other northern European examples count here, whatever their weaknesses).

For all that, Nielsen insists that no one should romanticize the ‘elite past’ when it comes to newsgathering. ‘Newspapers in particular represent a sunset industry faced with serious disruption.’ He adds that, uncomfortably for the industry, ‘news is a small sub-set now of what people go online for,’ and that ‘many big and powerful publishers beat a path to the digital behemoths, with their eyes open.’

In other words there are powerful publishing groups, typically commercial, for-profit entities, now arguing that they are being destroyed by tech newcomers. ‘Governments and regulatory bodies need to proceed with care.’

In his media survey report, Newman notes that slightly exceeding fear of tech platforms, in the 2018 crystal ball of media publishers, was concern about an inability to innovate allied to an internal resistance to change – miles away from the ‘fast fail’ ‘just do it’ mentality of Silicon Valley.

The rise of fact checking organisations may now be challenged by the rise of ‘alternative fact checking organisations’. But the #MeToo exposure of Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein showed how powerfully Twitter became, almost overnight, the mechanism for a particular truth. It’s not one or the other, good or bad, pure truth or pure fakery, but everything piled in, and at great speed and scale.

I ask if he’s an optimist or a pessimist. ‘An optimist’ he shoots back without hesitation. ‘What you think about what technology means for the future of our societies depend in large part on what you think of the public. I have a lot of confidence in the public.’

Pictures By University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse

Rasmus Nielsen is Director of Research for Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication, and Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Misinformation, Science and Media.

Nielsen, who attended the University of Copenhagen and later a doctorate from Columbia University in New York, coming to Oxford in 2010 and his current role since 2015, has been appointed to the new European Commission High Level Group on fake news/misinformation, launched by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner responsible for Digital Economy and Society: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/experts-appointed-high-level-group-fake-news-and-online-disinformation