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The harm in fake news

During the last months, an enthralling debate on fake news has been unfolding on the pages of the academic journal Inquiry. Behind opposed barricades, we find the advocates of two arguments, which for the sake of conciseness and simplicity we can sketch as follows:

  1. We should abandon the term ‘fake news’;
  2. We should keep using the term ‘fake news’.

There are good reasons to support argument 1., since fake news – like its kin term ‘post-truth’, as Habgood-Cote points out – lacks a definite and widely recognised meaning, is descriptively poor and is very often used as a political weapon (Habgood-Coote 2019; 2020). However, argument 2. proves convincingly that, while the reasons in support of 1. are good – they constitute proofs that ‘fake news’ is a sensitive term, they are not convincing: taken individually or jointly, they do not seem sufficient to conclude that scholars should abandon the term, leaving it in the hands of propagandists of different colours (Pepp, Michaelson and Sterken 2019).

This academic debate – which is going on, for the pleasure of Inquiry readers – reflects very well the bewilderment that the phenomenon of fake news creates in our societies, beyond conceptual engineering. Whatever we decide to call it, fake news is an unavoidable sign of the renewed politicisation of truth; it shows that facts have become instrumental to the continuous dispute over politicised truth which is contemporary public debate. Fake news influences public opinion and it produces politically relevant effects.

Here I would like to point out a feature of fake news which is detrimental to the eradication of structural injustice, namely the effect that they can have on citizens’ (stereotyped) perception of social reality, contributing to confirm mistaken ideas about individuals and groups who are perceived as alien with respect to a (stereotyped) conception of citizenship.

Let’s consider two cases of fake news concerning discriminated minorities. The first is a recurrent ‘hoax’, a false report of attempted child abductions by Roma people which has been circulating in French social media. The second case concerns a manipulated picture showing a migrant woman wearing nail polish just after her rescue, at the end of July 2018. In both cases, the fake news obtained viral spread thanks to the social media and reverberated in the ‘echo chambers’ of conservative, minorities-adverse groups of citizens. In March 2019, dozens of citizens, enraged by the ‘facts’ denounced in the fake news, took action and organised punitive raids against unaware Roma people living in camps in Clichy-sous-Bois, Colombes and Bobigny, suburbs near Paris. In the second case, the fake news was politically exploited by right-wing leaders to reinforce the idea that ‘not all migrants are fleeing from their countries for reasons of life and death’; some of them, as a prominent leader has stated countless times during the last years, are ‘cruising for free’. The direct effect of the diffusion of this fake news was a surreal debate about the right of women migrant to feel beautiful even in tough situations, which diverted the public attention from the main political issue which was at stake: whose responsibility is it to save human lives at sea?

Beyond the direct effects that this kind of fake news pursue – as we saw, they can be used either as mobilisation or diversion tools –, the most insidious outcome is their capacity to strengthen and freeze the stereotypes affecting individuals’ perceptions of others’ identities. This is particularly harmful for those individuals and groups that are systematically discriminated, since the negative stereotypes which are widespread and deeply-rooted within the society hamper their social inclusion and enjoyment of equal rights. Moreover, reinforcing negative identity prejudices, fake news increase the identity-related credibility deficits which cause persistent epistemic injustices (Fricker 2007).

I would like to point out that there is nothing wrong in having stereotyped perceptions or conceptions of social facts: our minds use frames obtained from experience in order to save time and energy, especially when we need to make daily decisions. However, when stereotypes concerning others’ identity do not rely on any factual/experiential basis but are prejudicial, they can hamper our capacity to know and interpret the facts. What fake news does is to make more difficult for us to recognize when our stereotypes do not match the reality in front of us. Fake news exploits the persistence of our stereotypes and prejudices, especially negative identity prejudices; these can contribute to strengthen individuals’ discriminatory attitudes and foster discriminatory practices, offering a powerful weapon to the advocates of anti-egalitarian political ideologies.

To conclude, since fake news can reproduce injustices, it is definitely a phenomenon worth of attention for political theorists working on justice: fake news can catalyse the emergence and persistence of  attitudes and practices of discrimination, with potentially systemic effects. As Waldron (2012) said about hate speech, there is harm in fake news: it contributes to relegate discriminated groups at the margins of society, reinforcing structural injustice and depriving us of the epistemic resources necessary to define and contrast it. Finally, although the term ‘fake news’ is imprecise, shallow and abused , I propose that we keep using it provisionally, at least until we find a better terminology to explain the complex relationship between mischievous information, factual truth and socio-political processes.

Elisa is Senior Researcher at the EURAC Center for Advanced Studies, in Bolzano Bozen. Previously, she has been Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa) from 2017 to 2022. She has also worked as a Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant in History of Political Thought at the Department of Social and Political Science of Bologna University. Her research interests include contemporary theories of justice, theories of global order, international ethics, foreign policy analysis, theories of public opinion and political epistemology.

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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    I was wondering whether the main harm in fake news wasn’t the erosion of the link between information and truth: by polluting the media landscape with false information, they threaten people’s capacity to get closer to the truth by informing themselves.

  2. Elisa

    Dear Pierre-Etienne,

    thank you for reading and for sharing your question. I agree that this is a fundamental issue. In this short piece, I thought that I would not go into this and I chose to focus on the production and reproduction of social injustices rather than on the issue of the accessibility of truth, because of the problematic idea of truth and of its socio-political implications. I am not sure that the access to (factually accurate) information is enough to guarantee access to the truth; also, because of the fact of pluralism, we could have many interpretations of the truth. However, I will think more about this!

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