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Firehose of Falsehood: How Fake News Destroys Trust in Media and Society


Fake news is a pervasive and dangerous problem in our modern society, with significant implications for the way we consume information and interact with each other. One of its most insidious effects is the way it undermines trust in information sources and fuels distrust between different groups.


A recent study conducted by a team from the University of Zurich has shed light on just how damaging this can be. The study found that the higher the proportion of false news in the media, the lower the confidence in the truthfulness of serious news. This is a serious issue, as it has the potential to erode trust in established media and drive people towards less credible sources of information, further perpetuating the problem.

The study conducted by the team from the University of Zurich involved experiments with 2735 subjects, who were presented with news packages containing different proportions of false news. The rate of fake news varied from 17 to 83 percent, and the researchers found that a high proportion of false news created the illusion that one could already distinguish between lies and truth, but this was not true. In the end, the participants believed almost nothing anymore, including correct messages.


“We have observed a significant and consistent impact on trust in the media as a whole,” writes the team led by Altay. “As the proportion of fake news increases, confidence in the truthfulness of any message decreases. With so much misinformation circulating, it becomes difficult to determine what to believe. This effect persists regardless of whether subjects regularly read the news. Even the ability to think critically appears unable to reduce the impact. Instead, a high proportion of false news creates the illusion that one can distinguish between lies and truth, but this is not the case. In the end, participants were more likely to believe that correct messages were wrong, and they trusted almost nothing.”


This effect can be intensified by itself, according to the researchers around Altay. Once trust in classic media was destroyed, people turned to other sources of information that maintained an even more lax relationship with truth and lies or deliberately spread false news. Destroyed trust in established media drives the audience into the arms of dubious sources, a vicious circle.

The impact of fake news on trust in established media is particularly concerning, as it undermines the very foundations of democracy. In democratic societies, the media plays a critical role in informing citizens and holding those in power accountable. Without a free and credible media, citizens are less able to make informed decisions, and those in power are less accountable to the public.

In the present, in which everyone can and may claim more or less everything, and in which attention means everything, disinformation is easier than ever to implement. The former adviser to former US President Donald Trump, for example, Steve Bannon, repeatedly described the media as an enemy to be defeated. According to Bannon, the system will be flooded with shit. That’s how he said it, and in retrospect, it can be said: That’s how it happened. Since then, it has changed at best many actors of all stripes have opened the locks even further. It is therefore essential that we take action to combat the spread of fake news and protect the credibility of established media sources.



One approach to tackling fake news is to promote Media & Information Literacy (check our Manipulation Technique Guide and Fact-checking Tools), and Critical Thinking skills among the general public. By providing people with the tools to distinguish between credible and non-credible sources of information, we can reduce the impact of fake news on trust in established media. This requires investing in education and promoting critical thinking skills from an early age.

Another approach is to hold those who spread fake news accountable for their actions. This could involve legal action against individuals or organizations that deliberately spread false information, as well as measures to regulate social media platforms to prevent the spread of false information.



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