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Is fake news a threat to deliberative democracy, and how bad is it?

Democracy
Political Theory
Knowledge
Jonathan Benson
University of Utrecht
Jonathan Benson
University of Utrecht

Abstract

Recent years have seen an increased concern for the threats that fake news and online misinformation present to democratic discourse (Persily,2017). It is therefore no surprise that deliberative democrats have started to pay attention to such problems and expressed concerns for their impacts on deliberative systems (Chambers,2020; McKay & Tenove,2020). While misinformation undermines the epistemic quality of deliberation, it also compromises mutual respect and inclusion due to its often inflammatory content. The threats that fake news present, however, depend not only on the significance of its effects, but also on its causes. The reasons individuals believe and share fake news can tell us about how serious and resolvable its challenges are, as well as what is required to address them. By surveying recent empirical research, this paper explores the reasons behind the prevalence of fake news, and what this means for the ideals and practices of deliberative democracy. It beings by considering the popular view that such content is driven by individual level partisan bias (Kahan,2017; Van Bavel & Pereira,2018). According to this ‘partisan view’, individual citizens are motived by their political identities rather than the truth, and will therefore believe false information if it supports these identities. The paper argues that this view, if true, is highly damaging for deliberative democracy. It is shown to implicate public deliberation in the spreading of fake news, to point to undemocratic solutions based on elite gatekeeping and censorship, and to reinforce an anti-democratic discourse about the incompetence of average citizens. Despite its popularity, this paper argues that recent empirical research gives us reason to doubt the partisan view. This research suggests that the acceptance and sharing of fake news has more to do with individuals not reflecting on the accuracy of online information. As Pennycook & Rand (2019) put it, fake news spreads because people are ‘lazy, not biased’. The implications of this ‘laziness account’ are argued to differ starkly from those of the partisan view. Rather than being biased reasoners, democratic citizens are instead failing to consider the accuracy of political information; a problem which is likely exacerbated by the design of social media platforms. The challenge of fake news then, is that it suggests many citizens are unmotivated to engage in even relatively undemanding forms of deliberation about the accuracy of online information. While not unproblematic for deliberative democracy, the positive side of the laziness view is that it points to more democratic responses to the problem of fake news. Although susceptible to false stories when unreflective, citizens are seen to have latent deliberative capacities which can identify false and misleading news when engaged. Rather than limiting public deliberation through elite censorship, this view opens up the possibility for a range of more democratic solutions which target these latent deliberative capacities and allow citizens to regulate their own online deliberations. The paper ends by evaluating the potential of three sets of democratic solutions – labelled as ‘deliberative nudges’, the ‘wisdom of crowds’, and ‘opening-up deliberative spaces’.