Fake News: Elections in the Online Age

By: Jasmine Hughes


‘Fake news is as old as news itself’ writes Michael Peel of the Financial Times, but for many of us the term “fake news” has mostly gained popularity - nay, infamy - in the past few years. Between the polarising Brexit campaign and the equally divisive 2016 US presidential election, the term “fake news” has well and truly entered the public sphere.


With the 2020 presidential election, we were able to see quite how pervasive fake news has become within our democratic processes. Incorrect allegations were made practically every step of the way throughout the election - both in the run up to election day, and in the gruelling days after America cast their ballots. Social media steadily became rife with doctored videos and false claims, shared on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter, bouncing from person to person, and from timeline to timeline.


Good news spreads fast, but fake news spreads even faster, and this spread of fake news isn’t helped by the fact that significant internet personalities, and even politicians themselves, are actively facilitating this spread. Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., spread to his millions of followers the claim that there was a suspicious spike in the voter turnout rate in Wisconsin -- a claim that was actually based on incorrect maths. Similarly, Eric Trump shared a viral video which falsely claimed that a man had burned 80 Trump ballots. Perhaps the most notable example of all, however, is President Donald Trump himself.


“If you count the legal votes,” remarked Trump in the opening lines of his speech on the evening of the 5 November, “I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” Within minutes of these remarks, news channels ABC, CBS and NBC cut away from Trump, beginning the process of fact checking him. This discretion between votes, the claim that there are both legal and illegal votes, is false -- these claims of voter fraud are baseless, and lacking substantial evidence. But the damage of these fake propositions was already done. For many a Trump supporter, the President’s word was good enough - and, truly, one could argue that those supporters who believed what the President claimed in his speech to be true are not to be blamed. The public ought to have every reason to believe in and trust the claims of the politicians that they vote for and support; in a democracy, the people cannot always be on the defensive, taking every statement with a pinch of salt, going about life with a thoroughly pessimistic viewpoint, assuming falsity first and truth second.


It is becoming ever more evident that this self-regulatory method of dealing with fake news is no longer working. Expecting people to be able to successfully filter fact from fiction in their consumption of media becomes a nearly impossible demand when one considers quite how widespread fake news is becoming; being able to distinguish an article that is obviously clickbait from one written by a well-reputed news organisation is a significantly easier task than trying to gauge whether the information relayed to you in a speech by the President is true or not. We are now well and truly in the online age. For the electoral process to remain democratic, we ought to begin to consider what serious changes can be made to better regulate political campaigning techniques on social media.


In 2019, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee recognised this very fact, concluding that, in today’s age, the electoral process is no longer fit for purpose -- in essence, it has become rather outdated. The current systems in place within democratic countries such as the UK and the US do not account for the outside influences of political Facebook pages, or the use of people’s personal data to influence the direction of electoral campaigns, or the spreading of false claims by presidential candidates and their sons. In their final report, the DCMS Committee remarked that:


‘electoral law… needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques… there needs to be: absolute transparency of online political campaigning…’ (para 211)

Despite these recommendations, however, significant changes to electoral law are yet to be made. Though some independent web companies (such as Twitter, who, throughout the 2020 election, placed disinformation warnings on some Tweets, and who actively encourage users to read the full article before retweeting it) have taken it upon themselves to attempt to tackle the spread of fake news and misinformation on their sites, these preventive measures do not tackle the wider issue -- that being how vastly unregulated the world of online campaigning is. If anyone was wondering quite how prevalent fake news is in the 21st century, they need look no further than the Brexit campaign and the 2020 election; unless legislation is passed to bring electoral law in line with this new age of digital campaigning, and to better regulate campaigning techniques used by political groups on both sides of the political spectrum, it seems increasingly likely that the spread and presence of fake news will continue to be a defining characteristic of elections to come. With fake news spreading like wildfire during elections and referendums, preying on and exacerbating tensions between groups of people with differing political beliefs, we are at risk of the intrinsic values and principles of our democratic systems being seriously undermined.