De strijd om de waarheid

Position Paper | Year 2018
The battle for the truth.
Fake news and disinformation in the digital media world


Fake news and disinformation in the digital media world

Ever since Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign the term “fake news” has become an integral part of daily media reports (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Presumably, this is one of the reasons why the term has become associated with the president of the US. Specific events exemplify the phenomenon, as when spokesman Sean Spicer asserted – against all evidence – that the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 was the biggest ever. After TV footage and head counts showed incontestably that his contention was false, Trump’s spokesman continued to deny that “fact”. The then ommunications advisor, Kellyanne Conway, came to Spicer’s defence, claiming that his observations were based on “alternative facts”. This sounds like a way of legitimising fake news: fake news need not give way to factual news, because it relies on a different (alternative) view of the ‘multifarious’ facts and looks at them from another
perspective (Kakutani, 2018: 74).

In addition to the abovementioned US election campaign, the unexpected results of the Brexit referendum have also fed the discussion on the long-term consequences for democracy of deliberate and targeted campaigns that use demographic, and even psychological, profiles (‘micro targeting’) of voters in order to spread misleading information (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017: 4, 26-28). What the United Nations revealed about the mass expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar, and about the role of hate campaigns among millions of Facebook users in this process, strengthens the realisation that terms such as ‘power’, ‘mass violence’ and ‘hate campaigns’ are all part of the wider debate on fake news and disinformation. What is involved is a struggle over feelings, thoughts, mindsets and knowledge. Donald Trump’s election campaign and the ‘micro-targeting’ activities of Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit campaign reveal the darker side of the digital world. But there is another side that we would do well not to forget when looking for ways to legislate the digital world. The facilities of the digital world allow countless users to stay in touch with friends and family across the entire world. Finding useful information, when planning all kinds of activities, has never been easier.

In an interview, the famous philosopher-sociologist Jürgen Habermas compared the rise of the online society with the invention of the printing press. The internet has already created millions of useful niches where reliable information and wellfounded opinions can be exchanged. Academics can now attract a wider public for their discoveries, publications and critical discussions. This is the reason why in this position paper we would like to make nuanced and very specific recommendations that counter (online) disinformation, without discounting the positive accomplishments of the digital society and freedom of expression.

Available documents


  • Jaak Billiet
  • Peter Van Aelst
  • Michaël Opgenhaffen
  • Bart Pattyn