To the extent that there is such a thing as objective truth, I always thought that the “fake news” trend was just an exaggerated new spin put on an old phenomenon that we used to call rumors or hoaxes, with no real new danger. Long before this WPI fellowship, my explanation was that American liberal media had to find an explanation for their failure to predict the 2016 electoral upset and that “post-truth” was the perfect narrative. My perception might be changing now, even though I still don’t see the goal of the parties behind the production and dissemination of what some might call “alternative facts.”

“A political culture in which debate is framed largely […] by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” That is how Wikipedia defines this “post-truth” trend.

During University of St. Thomas Prof. Mark Neuzil’s September lecture on the history of journalism in the United States, I asked if a significant number of people believed rumors and hoaxes spread by yellow journalism in the 19th century. His answer was affirmative, and it reinforced my view on the danger of “fake news.” My opinion was strengthened when both William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago, and Joseph Uscinski, an associate political science professor at the University of Miami, said that the role of “fake news” in affecting election results was exaggerated by media.

But some subsequent talks are the reason my perception might be changing. Renee DiResta, the research manager at Stanford University, talked to WPI fellows about the work her teams have been doing, mainly on how small groups of individuals/accounts use the power of social media and marketing techniques to amplify messages and shape narratives across the globe. Examples include the anti-vaccine movement, and the discussion even touched upon whether debunking even works and if media outlets’ effort to fact-check information contributed to spreading “fake news” instead of fighting it.

Countries such as Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates that are competing for regional dominance invest a lot of money into spreading narratives online, and they affect places like Hong Kong, the Central African Republic and Libya, among others.

About all of this, Journalism School Dean Edward Wasserman of the University of California at Berkeley had an interesting comment.

“Bogus news has been around for a while, but what changed now, thanks to the Internet, is the existence of a different worldview,” he told WPI fellows. “The comprehensiveness of the worldview is what I find most disturbing. It does not care about facts, it has its own different set of motives, players and facts.”

And there you have it. Alternative worldviews that do not care about objective facts. They are empowered by the effectiveness of social media, and they use marketing tools to shape narratives around the world. That might be more dangerous than hoaxes spread by yellow journalism in the past, but what is the goal of all of this?

During a talk at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., Peter Pomerantsev, author of “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality,” explained that more often than not, it is not a “comprehensive worldview” that these narratives try to spread but a set of different versions of “the truth” put out there in order to try to discredit the very notion of an objective reality of what really happened.

So, will the Internet lead to a complete dystopia where no one is sure what the truth is? Or will those narratives just completely discredit social media as a news source in the eyes of most of the public, much like the yellow press was discredited?