The Political Function of Fake News: Disorganized Propaganda in the Era of Automated Media

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These days, the facts are preceded by their denunciation. We are just as likely to hear about the latest school shooting from a news “flash” as from a shared post about the right-wing trolls denouncing the young victims as “crisis actors” participating in a “false flag operation.” The very act of expressing outrage and frustration with those willing to participate in such callous cruelty serves only to amplify their message. Every hard-hitting, deeply reported investigative news report is countered by the savvy skepticism that paints it as a political fabrication woven out of fake photos and invented facts. To compound matters, each story is then redoubled by a counter-narrative that does exactly what it accuses the investigative report of doing. As the philosopher Jacques Ellul put it, in his study of propaganda, “The propagandist will never accuse the enemy of just any misdeed; he will accuse him of the very intention that he himself has and of trying to commit the very crime that he himself is about to commit.” The result is more online noise serving the commercial interests of our social media platforms but not the informational needs of a democratic society. In the case of the conspiracy theories that sprung up in the wake of the Parkland School shootings in Florida, for example, research revealed that, “People outraged by the conspiracy helped to promote it—in some cases far more than the supporters of the story.” This outrage was amplified by algorithms that took the frenetic social media response to the conspiracy theories as a sign of user engagement, leading to further automated amplification of the original posts. The algorithms do not measure whether the response is one of febrile support or outraged condemnation: it’s all engagement, and that’s what the platform privileges.
If, as Ellul wrote in the 1960s, “every medium is particularly suited to a certain type of propaganda,” the platform economy lends itself to a profoundly disconcerting type. Although the term “propaganda” has fallen into disfavor in the wake of various sophisticated post-war critiques of “truth” and “objectivity” in all their scare-quoted glory, it tends to make a resurgence during war time, and the U.S. has framed itself as being on a wartime footing since the 9/11 attacks. Thus, to describe the rise of “fake news” as an emerging form of propaganda is to highlight the political function of a phenomenon that is typically framed as the result of economic imperatives (the platform economy’s privileging of engagement over content) and technological affordances (the “democratization” of access to publication and distribution online).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFake News
Subtitle of host publicationUnderstanding Media and Misinformation in the Digital Age
EditorsZimdars Melissa, Kembrew McLeod
Place of PublicationCambridge MA USA
PublisherThe MIT Press
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9780262538367
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

NameInformation Policy
PublisherMIT Press

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