Sep 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The misinformation age

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hostile powers undermining elections. Deepfake video and audio. Bots and trolls, phishing and fake news — plus of course old-fashioned spin and lies.

Why it matters: The sheer volume of assaults on fact and truth is undermining trust not just in politics and government, but also in business, tech, science and health care as well.

  • Beginning with this article, Axios is launching a series to help you navigate this new avalanche of misinformation, and illuminate its impact on America and the globe, through 2020 and beyond.

Our culture now broadly distrusts most claims to truth. Majorities of Americans say they've lost trust in the federal government and each other — and think that lack of trust gets in the way of solving problems, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

  • That's the worst part of all, as Axios' Felix Salmon points out: Even a small amount of misinformation infects everything and makes it much easier for people to disbelieve any fact.

The backstory: This didn't happen overnight, and has more than one root cause:

  • The rise of partisan TV news in the U.S., led by Fox and now widespread throughout cable news, broke the homogenizing and unifying hold of the old TV networks.
  • The internet sped things up and broke them down. It gave everyone a megaphone, allowing wider participation in political dialogue but also accelerating the spread of unvetted information and amplifying the most raucous and extreme voices.

This is the fertile ground on which bad actors today are merrily scattering the seeds of doctored videos, bogus memes, political slurs and other species of misinformation.

  • As Axios' Sara Fischer and Kaveh Waddell reported last month, misinformation tactics in the 2020 election are getting more sophisticated. New twists include smarter bots, pages and accounts that build a following before spreading deception, and a shift from mass platforms to more obscure and less monitored venues.

But it's not just the election. Today, misinformation is coming at us from all directions:

  • It's used against our government by international criminals.
  • It's also used by our government, with a president whose Twitter feed needs a fact check for practically every tweet.
  • It's used against businesses, by competitors and short-sellers who hope to profit from rumor.
  • It's also used by businesses on topics like climate science or tobacco research when the facts might harm their bottom lines.
  • It's used against social media platforms by partisans on the right making unsubstantiated charges of bias.
  • It's used against scientists when their findings, in areas like gun violence, reproductive health or (again) global warming, clash with deeply held partisan positions.
  • And it becomes a public health threat every time misinformation warriors clustered on both left and right spread doubt, yet again, about vaccines.
  • More than anywhere else, it's a huge problem for the news media, where public trust is at historic lows.

Between the lines: Our misinformation apocalypse has many contributors across the political spectrum, but one group benefits: authoritarians. They flourish when citizens overwhelmed with bad information give up on trying to figure out the truth.

The bottom line: We won't be able to solve our problems if we can't even agree which ones are real.

Go deeper:

Misinformation haunts 2020 primaries

New fake-news worry for Instagram

The coming deepfakes threat to businesses

The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes

Go deeper

Tech platforms struggle to police deepfakes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook, TikTok and Reddit all updated their policies on misinformation this week, suggesting that tech platforms are feeling increased pressure to stop manipulation attempts ahead of the 2020 elections.

Why it matters: This is the first time that several social media giants are taking a hard line specifically on banning deepfake content — typically video or audio that's manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning to intentionally deceive users.

A global trust crisis

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Established institutions like the media and government are no longer seen as competent or ethical enough to address crises like climate change and health care, according to Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer study. So businesses are leading the way.

Between the lines: The survey shows a stark class divide — a growing gap in institutional trust between wealthier, more educated and better informed people vs. the rest of the population.

Go deeperArrowJan 20, 2020

No confidence in 2020 referees

Data: Fox News poll of 1,003 registered voters, Oct.6–8, 2019. Margin of error ±3 percentage points; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

If the 2020 presidential election is close enough to trigger a fight over the results, the public's confidence is so low in key people and institutions that no one is likely to be a trusted referee.

Why it matters: Given how tight the last few elections have been, the likelihood of a contested election is quite real — which means the danger of a fight over the results is real, too.

Go deeperArrowJan 18, 2020