INTERVIEW: Professor Divina Frau-Meigs on the role of fake news during elections


Last year Flamingo contributed research to a BBC report on Fake News in Nigeria and Kenya, having carried out extensive research in the region. Alongside a number of country-specific insights, we noticed that people seemed more susceptible to fake news when there were divisions in society and when emotions were high; people’s gut often overrides any critical methods they have for discerning the validity of a source, especially if the content aligns with their beliefs. With this in mind, one of the questions the report raised was what this would mean for the role of news in election time. 

With the European elections upon us, Flamingo’s specialist Casting team –which helps brands to connect with experts, hard-to-reach and leading-edge consumers, niche behaviours, cultural commentators and tastemakers –connected us to Professor Divina Frau-Meigs, professor of media sociology at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, author of the 2017 book Digital Citizenship Education and this report on the societal impact of fake news in the EU single market commissioned by the EU Parliament. 

We spoke to Professor Frau-Meigs about the importance of culture in dictating the role of news, people’s relationship to traditional vs. social media and the impact of this during election time, and her thoughts on how we can try and squeeze some positives out of the fake news phenomenon. 


Flamingo: How has the role of news at election time changed over recent years? 


Professor Frau-Meigs: The role of news has changed drastically, especially in election time, and we were largely unprepared. What has changed most is the contract the news media has with audiences and users. While we’re used to the more familiar ‘information contract’, where traditional media positioned themselves as informing democratic citizens so they can make decisions, there is now a second contract: the ‘sharing contract’, based around scandal, wow factor, the fun and the fake. It’s a different mood that implies something is terribly wrong and people need to find a new solution. 


F: What does this mean for the role of news in elections? 


PF-M: Take the case of the yellow vests in France, for example. There was an increase in the petrol tax, which pushed up prices. The traditional media followed the information contract by speaking about the political reasons for this, namely climate change. But the sharing contract here was about exploitation of the working and rural classes and an unwillingness to pay for the environment. It started with a few people online saying things like: ‘High petrol costs are scandalous’ - something that traditional media wouldn’t say. They would usually go for something more like: ‘Government arranges hike in petrol tax’. But this representation of it as a scandal in turn fuelled the public debate. In Europe, often even the most marginalised groups are still highly informed, literate, and educated. They will therefore not blindly accept the information contract that comes from the mass media. 

But having two contracts could be positive. It forces change. Traditional news does not have a monopoly on setting the agenda, of deciding what the solutions are. Social media now asks: are we paying attention to the right people; are we using the right frame; are the potential solutions different? 

During elections, people constantly revise their positions and align them with their own experiences and thinking. It’s a moment that justifies the social utility of media but currently without changing agenda or challenging the solutions on the table. In some ways, it has started to hold the mass or traditional media - often run by elites - to account. 


F: So would you say you have a positive view of the role of fake news? 


PF-M: No, fake news is not a good thing, we know that. What I am trying to do, though, is to see the positives in the negatives. While it’s not a good thing in itself, it has created a media scandal that brings attention to issues that were asking to be made public but couldn’t. The way the new and old media work has had to change; it’s been forced to clarify the role of social media.

The mass media was just seen to deliver the news, but fact checking and other calls to action have enabled the media to show that actually there are procedures in place; they are slow and regulated and have guidelines etc. To an extent, it has revitalised the authenticity of journalism.


F: Do periods of heightened emotion impact people’s ability to critically analyse news?


PF-M: Elections are a ‘gut feel’ moment, but they are also a period when people are super aware of things; they discuss, there’s a marketplace of ideas, they’re aligned. Maybe emotions are less likely to affect them during elections than at other times of the year. 

If people are attentive and discuss with peers and groups, then it’s OK. Its only very isolated people that can be affected; now messages can be sent to people very personally, while people keep thinking these messages are sent to the whole constituency. Marketed and targeted profiling that feels universal - we need more transparency around that. 


F: Where does this leave us when it comes to trust in the media? 


PF-M: Some people still have total distrust in traditional media, but since 2017 we have seen a rise in trust in mass media, while trust in social media has decreased [as evidenced in the Edelman Trust Barometer referenced in Professor Frau-Meigs’ report]. And this is because the mass media has started to change its ways as a response to fake news. The public has been reassured that they are responding; you see journalists criticising each other, which shows authenticity and sincerity. 

The sharing contract that fake news operates in has forced traditional media to open up.  It requires them to be more real, reflective, honest, to hold themselves to account and to show how they work behind the scenes. And this applies to all information providers, including researchers. If people are more transparent, it creates more trust. 


F: During our research for the BBC, we saw that in Kenya and Nigeria the negative, even violent, impact of fake news was very real, but also that the cultural attitudes to news and politics felt significantly different to both India and Europe. How important is culture in dictating the role of news?


PF-M: There hasn’t been enough research comparing the impact of culture on how audiences receive fake news. But research by the European Broadcasting Union explores trust in news and news media; it says that Eastern Europeans in the UK don’t trust the press, so tend to rely on social media instead. Meanwhile, Western Europe still has trust in the press. Also, interestingly, trust in news that comes from the radio and TV is particularly strong in the Nordic regions. This all invites a closer look at the local context, our relationships with one another and how the cultural dimension impacts differences in trust.

F: We also saw in our research that divisions or polarisations in a society and its culture may make them more susceptible to fake news. Why do you think this might be, and what does this mean for the EU?

PF-M: Polarisation exists in a country with or without fake news, but it can be reinforced by it. What this ultimately means is that the political class has to change as their view is not being accepted; they have to do this or they will be out. It happened in the UK –let’s hope as an accident, but it happened. 

And then yes, there are always rogue actors who have an interest in destabilising a society. They can use social bots and other tools we know of to take advantage of existing polarisations. 

In Europe, for example, the main issue of polarisation is religion. The topics of migrants and patriotism can push those buttons. People feel threatened. It’s a very economic, low effort way to destabilise, because all you have to do is post information. 

F: Is this why you say that EU is vulnerable and has a social weakness?

PF-M: There is this, yes. But there is another more important reason: all of social media is from the US, or Russia or Asia. We don’t have our own social media network, we are using and borrowing America’s. This means we are vulnerable culturally because our sharing contract is being pushed by the US and by the monetisation of social media accounts. They also do not have all the same cultural habits that we have in Europe when it comes to politics and debate. This creates asymmetry between mass media brands, as it’s difficult for European brands to push their own social contracts. Ultimately, if you express yourself on American social media, you Americanise our political debate. 

F: The BBC has reported that so far, the level of misuse of information seems to be relatively low in the EU elections. Why do you think that might be? 

PF-M: I’m not surprised that it has been lower. Everyone has been acting against it. Facebook and Google are supressing accounts and are keeping archives so we are staying on top of it. This is a positive coming out of the scandals in 2016. 

My suspicion is it will be the last day that we will have to watch, that’s where it’s the most sensitive. It takes 12 – 14 hours to debunk fake news, so if you do it right before the election that can have a little bit of impact on the undecided public. 

It doesn’t need to come direct from Russia, it can take other routes and unexpected paths. Announcements like: ‘Polling booths are closed’, which aren’t reliable, but demoralise voters, so they don’t bother to go to try and vote. That’s why I think there’s still room for destabilising democracy. We need to stay watchful.

F: What more can be done to reduce the risks of malinformation and try to encourage this more positive role of the social contract?

PF-M: Well, firstly we are still in the diagnostic stage. Yes, there has been some time since the Brexit vote, but we still need to take stock, see how it spreads and how to check rumours. And certainly we need to make original and good quality content more accessible on social media. Currently it is only popularity – likes – that makes something easily accessible online. It needs a more coherent whole. 

There are some good initiatives going on already. Fact checkers and quality standards. Social media is funding a lot of the fact-checking process, especially Google. Or they are demonetising fake accounts. And social media is also trying to bring in new users. Having robots deep learn, so then fact checking can be robotised. But for that, robots will need to see the mental processes of real users online. Facebook’s project about having their users participate in the process is gearing toward that.  

Then there are a number of apps. And of course the Journalism Trust initiative, Reporters without Borders [an international non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Paris that conducts political advocacy on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press]. I think that’s an initiative to be followed. 

But we need to change the popularity factor and I think here there is a dialogue lacking here. We need to see traditional mass media and new social media communicating with each other on the matter. And other players too. Let’s learn from each other and then see how we can make the most of this new phenomenon. 

Matt Taylor and Amaka Ukpabi, Flamingo