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Politics, publications and the public: how we can curb the effects of fake news

Misinformation is now part of the narrative of any political event, as the recent Philippines elections demonstrate. Critics of the newly elected Marcos Jnr say his victory was won thanks to a disinformation campaign whitewashing the Marcos family’s atrocities, enhancing its reputation and undermining opponents. In light of this, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Filipino journalist Maria Ressa has warned of the continued potency of misinformation campaigns in elections. Governments and media organisations have found themselves obliged to commit resources to deterring the unrelenting tide of fake news.

During the French presidential elections last month, the media was on high alert for fake news, triggered by prominent misinformation campaigns around the US elections that aimed to undermine candidates and the process itself. Macron’s political party, La République en Marche, compiled a plan to fight against “digital propaganda” last year. This included pushing for social media platforms to better regulate the spread of disinformation on their sites, staging random phishing attacks to test the vulnerability of internal systems, and the creation of a designated agency to fight the manipulation of online information.

Whether or not these measures are having a tangible influence on the suppression of fake news is hard to pinpoint, but early signs are encouraging. As the recent French presidential campaign drew to a close, election-related misinformation was lower than expected. Objectif Désinfox, a coalition of 23 French media set up to fact-check rumours, hoaxes, false claims, and candidates’ statements ahead of the presidential election, revealed that only 8 out of 102 fact-checks published on its site related to election integrity.

This could, however, also be down to public attention being focused on other world events. The ability of propagandists to spread fake claims across multiple issues appears to be limited, as Newsback’s own research shows.

Top fake news topics covered in the media in 2022

The graph above shows the top fake news topics covered in the media and reveals how they have a tendency to only target the most salient topics at a time – in this case, the war in Ukraine. As news cycles became dominated by the Russian invasion, we can see that media attention was drawn away from other news items, such as upcoming political elections and Covid-19 vaccinations.

Coverage of these misinformation campaigns demonstrates the commitment from media organisations to investigate the validity of stories and ensure the public knows which ones are untrue. Through collectives like Objectif Désinfox, alternative sources of substantiated information are being made readily available.

Equally, in the UK mainstream media, dedicated verification teams are looking for false claims wherever they appear. One recent example of this is a doctored BBC tweet regarding Macron’s immigration policy and the supposed rigging of voting machines – both of which were quickly exposed and corrected.

While this work is critical, there is an argument that those most susceptible to fake news often distrust authority. In this sense, the discrediting of stories by mainstream media institutions may serve to reinforce false beliefs, as though they’re indicative of some kind of conspiracy.

Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, believes politically engaged internet users provide the strongest defence against disinformation. To this end, Higgins says we must engage young people on the topic of fake news; if the next generation has a better understanding of how to spot falsities, they’ll be in a better place to verify information they come across online. Now more than ever, tracing the authenticity of news is essential for healthy democracies.

Through agencies implemented to fight fake news, specialist news teams dedicated to weeding out false stories, and a digitally literate public armed with the right tools, the harmful effects of disinformation can be curbed.

Delphine Gatignol, Business Unit Director, Newsback

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