Ecosystem of Distrust
25 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2018
Date Written: March 30, 2018
The Internet has famously democratized the information ecosystem. Online, everyone is a pundit: each participant can share news, analyze events, and opine. The analog system, by contrast, was one where incumbent intermediaries (frequently licensed by governments) performed a powerful, centralized gatekeeping function that largely regulated the creation and dissemination of news. Scholars have mostly welcomed the rise of the democratized, networked Fourth Estate. We argue that this transformation is not at all an unalloyed good. Moreover, in celebrating this technological revolution, commentators have neglected the role of cultural factors that tend to magnify the pernicious effects of a flattened information hierarchy.
Distrust in social institutions has been on the rise since the Watergate crisis in the 1970s. While government has been the most obvious target of falling confidence, media entities and subject matter experts have also been increasingly the focus of skepticism. The advent of the Internet has magnified this effect: gatekeepers such as CBS and the New York Times are vilified when wrong and invisible when correct. Many eyes make media errors shallow. Moreover, traditional journalistic norms that require forthright admission of mistakes help reinforce narratives that portray the “mainstream media” as biased, incompetent, and out of touch.
The current phenomenon labeled as “fake news,” and the older trend of conspiracy theories, are outgrowths of both the technological amplification of skeptical or nihilistic voices and the postmodern assault on information shibboleths. It is critical to realize that the Internet’s initial promise of disintermediation was illusory: gatekeepers have not been eliminated, but merely replaced. The new breed of intermediaries operates with radically different financial incentives and professional norms than their predecessors did. While Facebook moderates and removes information on its ubiquitous platform for violations of amorphous community standards, the company’s goal is not the production of truth, but rather the generation of increased traffic and interaction by users. Falsity can be profitable if it’s popular. Both the old and new bosses curated content, but to vastly different ends.
We argue that the new architecture of networked information has a structurally corrosive effect. It is easier to generate doubt about narratives — even those produced by previously trusted sources — than it is to create trusted content. Previously, intermediaries served as choke points: they reacted to incentives that led them to filter unreliable material, in order to preserve their status as creators of the historical record. Now, authors and distributors attract attention (which they monetize) by casting doubt. The most pernicious feature of the Internet news ecosystem is that it leads to a cascade of cynicism: it reinforces not just skepticism about a particular course, but distrust for all media production.
Importantly, current scholarly accounts of fake news and conspiracy theories are technologically overdetermined. The democratization of information flows by networked computing cannot fully account for the spread of fake news and the distrust of established media more generally. We argue that cultural factors are neglected causes of these phenomena. First, the technological transformation of the public sphere is accompanied by a social shift toward pervasive distrust of experts. This anti-intellectual turn both constitutes and is constituted by the spread of fake news. Second, while fake news has taken a stronger hold in America than in Europe, the technical systems that undergird the information economy are nearly identical on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, we explore the non-technical factors that make the United States particularly amenable to the spread of fake news and a culture of media distrust.
Keywords: Disintermediation, Fake News, Professional Norms, Journalistic Norms, Facebook, Cultural Factors, Anti-Intellectual
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