While numerous studies have examined the impact of fake news on those who read them, few studies allow us to understand what these readers do with such misleading information. In this article, Romain Badouard, Associate Professor in Information and Communication Sciences at Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas University, addresses this topic by asking the following question: What is debated, and how is it debated, when instances of fake news are used as the foundation of an exchange?
To reconstruct the characteristics of debates surrounding fake news currently in circulation, the analysis provided in this study is based on two distinct data sets. The first is a set of 234 articles published in 2017 and containing false information of a political nature. These articles were identified in the database of the Décodex, the fact-checking initiative of the newspaper Le Monde.
The author’s analysis shows that 60% of these instances of fake news are directed towards Emmanuel Macron. They were shared close to 2 million times on Facebook. The instances of fake news in this set primarily convey an anti-system perspective that is often close to far-right viewpoints. Taxes and public spending are their main themes (close to 50% of all instances). They often announce new taxes for citizens and denounce the waste of public resources by elected officials. These themes are also those that generate the most engagement from Facebook users. This suggests an opportunistic behavior on behalf of fake news creators, who seem to focus on the topics that most attract public attention.
The second data set consists of 350 comments related to the aforementioned articles and taken from Facebook comment threads. Romain Badouard analyzed these comments according to the following criteria:
Adherence to the message: ¼ of comments criticize the fake news in question, while ¾ go along with it. Badouard notes that explicitly politicized Facebook pages are those that receive the least opposition when sharing fake news. In this context, discussions around fake news appear as a chain of outraged messages on behalf of commenters. When fake news appears on less politicized pages, the debate features more opposing views.
Politicization of the debate: 70% of messages are of a political nature. However, less than half of these messages explicitly adopt a political stance. When they do so, they are mostly anti-Macron, pro-extreme right or anti-system. The politicization of discussions largely depends on the article in question. When the article is political and divisive, discussions surrounding it will follow suit. This dynamic is not specific to fake news, but corresponds to that of everyday political discussions, as observed by sociologists. The context of these discussions greatly influences the content of messages and the degree of violence they contain.
Expressive violence: Badouard notes that the overall tone of the exchanges is rather violent. This verbal violence is in particular directed towards migrants, journalists, the left, Islam and Emmanuel Macron. Generally, discussions serve as an outlet for collective venting. Instances of fake news thus serve as a pretext for the liberation of speech. In this sense, the commenting of fake news by Internet users is not significantly different from that of reliable news information.
Fact-checking: 17% of comments consist of interventions aiming to denounce the falseness of the article in question. However, these interventions do not have a significant impact on the direction of the discussion. Badouard cites an article by Vraga and Bode (2017) to explain fact-checking’s inability to convince. According to the cited study, in order to work, fact-checking must be massively promoted and must reach undecided audiences. We therefore understand that the chances of success of fact-checking on activist Facebook pages are particularly slim.
In conclusion, instances of fake news enable an at times violent and hateful liberation of speech that is focused on the denunciation of elites and other divisive “figures”: migrants, journalists, etc. This liberation of speech is facilitated by the establishment of activist online spaces that marginalize opposing viewpoints.
However, this liberation of violent political speech is not unique to discussions surrounding fake news. It is regularly observed as soon as the subject at hand is politically divisive. It therefore seems that what is at stake for both fake news and information stemming from traditional media outlets is the manifestation of political convictions by Internet users.