Why has fake news become so politicised, and what does it say about the future of our society and journalism? Democracy is in crisis, and arguments over the meaning of "fake" and "real" news have become central to it, says researcher Johan Farkas.

In a new PhD thesis, he examines how journalists and political actors explain fake news and analyse how they try to address it.

I don't really like talking about a "post-truth crisis" because a truth society is not necessarily democratic.

Johan Farkas

Farkas studies news discourses and public debate in the USA and Denmark and has interviewed journalists, experts, and other central media actors. In his thesis, he shows how fake news has become a ‘floating signifier’ in political struggles, a concept mobilised by opposing actors with conflicting meanings.

For example, some voices argue that fake news is an external enemy, against which we need "good" journalism to protect society. Others, however, believe that disinformation is a product of declining standards in the journalistic profession. Fake news thus become interwoven within conflicting worldviews on what journalism is and ought to be. This connects to the realm of politics where different political actors define fake news in opposing ways.

“Donald Trump, for example, defines fake news completely differently from many others. As such, fake news is used to legitimise some political projects and delegitimise others. This, I argue, tells us something deeper about the state of journalism and democracy. Traditional knowledge gatekeepers and truth-saying institutions have become increasingly unstable, leading to different actors trying to take on that role,” says Farkas, a doctoral student in media and communication science at Malmö University.

The rise of new forms of misinformation and debates over the meaning of ‘fake’ and ‘real’ news are signs of something bigger, Farkas believes. It connects to decades old problems in many democracies of rising inequality, growing political apathy, and reduced voter participation. For this reason, Farkas is critical of those who say that fake news is democracy’s primary problem. Additionally, he also criticises current political solutions that focus on censorship or surveillance.

“How can we strengthen democracy without closing the door to opinions we don't want to hear?“ asks Farkas.

Nostalgically yearning back to a time when newspapers and a handful of television channels gave a sober description of current affairs is not fruitful, Farkas argues. Research has a responsibility to emphasise that democracy needs political participation and space for conflicting views.

“Right-wing populists present simple solutions to complex problems, but unfortunately they are the ones who often present new visions. Of course there are, for example, environmental activists who have a clear goal, but by and large there is a lack of vision from both the left and the liberal side,” says Farkas.

Fake news is a sign that the divides in society are increasing, and many people feel far removed from political decisions. To fix this, much more is required than just fighting falsehood, says Farkas.

“I don't really like talking about a "post-truth crisis" because a truth society is not necessarily democratic. Democracies strength lies in its ability to facilitate disagreement and provide equal access to public deliberation, not in suppressing certain voices. The fake news debate should start a discussion about how we can protect and expand upon those aspects of democracy,” adds Farkas.

Text: Magnus Jando & Adrian Grist