The Ecosystem of Fake News
02 Feb 2019



Robert Bergsvik* & Pedro Russo**




*Department of Science Communication & Society, Leiden University, the Netherlands
**Leiden Observatory,Leiden University, the Netherlands

​Parallel Session 2​: Combatting Fake News
Tuesday 9 April 14:45 - 16:30​​​

​According to Ipsos MORI's annual Veracity Index (2017), the scientific profession is ranked in the top tier of the United Kingdom's most trusted professions, with 83% trust in scientists to tell the truth. By contrast, the journalistic profession is ranked at the bottom, with 27%. However, science and journalism are inextricably linked because of the important role journalists have in disseminating scientific research beyond scientific communities. Scientists and journalists are facing a number of the same challenges with regards to trust and support for their work. An increasing number of people are getting their news directly from social media platforms – this has implications for scientists and journalists' role as gatekeepers of information (Weißkopf and Witt 2015; Rusbridger 2018). In the US, 68 % of adults report that they use Facebook, and 39% of them report using Facebook as a news source (Marchal et al 2018). Prior to the election in Brazil, 66% of respondents in a comprehensive survey reported that they use social media as their main source of news (Al Jazeera 2018).

The investigations into Facebook and Google's involvement in the elections in the US, Brazil and Brexit makes for an important consideration of how these companies are shaping society, culture and politics. They can be places where the user reconnects with old friends and keeps in touch with family members, but they can also be places for amplifying and energising anti-democratic forces (Vaidhyanathan 2018). Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook is about bringing the world together into one big global community, '…building the world we all want.' (Facebook 2017). However, the social network is a highly compartmentalised space where every news feed reflects that individual user's preferences. Google's search engine provides the user with a personally tailored experience of the internet, based on highly sophisticated algorithms that constantly gathers the users' data. Facebook and Google then gives advertisers access to this data (Benkler, Faris and Roberts 2018). What we are left with are platforms that actively work against dissemination and deliberation of information. This problem cannot be solved by tweaking the algorithm or improving the code – they work exactly how they are supposed to work. The problem is the role these platforms are trying to take in our private and public spheres (Vaidhyanathan 2018).

Where does this leave the field of science communication? A great deal of attention and resources has gone into figuring out how scientists can improve content, accessibility and delivery of scientific information. While these efforts are important they cannot be our only focus. The rise of Fake News is deeply connected to structural shifts in the political economy of technology and communication. These shifts represent the rise of ideological forces of both the left and right, but with the latter to a larger extent pushing for narratives that directly contradict scientific consensus (Iyengar and Massey 2018). Understanding the consequences of these shifts, and why they occurred is imperative for going forward. Behind Fake News, misinformation and disinformation campaigns are powerful economic forces with clear ambitions of creating confusion and chaos (Benkler, Faris and Roberts 2018; Iyengar and Massey 2018). It is clear that scientists need to work on several fronts. Creating outreach teams of scientists and designing online tools for combating Fake News are important initiatives, but this can only go so far because of how the current structure of the internet is designed (Iyengar and Massey 2018). One of our goals should be to find ways to work towards a more democratic and transparent information ecosystem. Such as system would ensure more protection for journalists than advertisers (Lazer et al 2018). In this talk the authors will discuss the current fake news' ecosystem and discuss some potential science communication approaches to tackle fake news.


  1. ​Al Jazeera. 2018. Social media: The new battleground in Brazil's election, 7 October.
  2. Benkler, Y., Faris, R., and Roberts, H. 2018. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Oxford University Press. New York.
  3. Iyengar, S., and Massey, S., D. 2018. Scientific communication in a post-truth society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 1-6.​
  4. Lazer, D. M., Baum, M. A., Benkler, Y., Berinsky, A. J., Greenhill, K. M., Menczer, F., ... & Schudson, M. 2018. The science of fake news. Science, 359(6380), 1094-1096.
  5. Rusbridger, A., 2018. Breaking news: the remaking of journalism and why it matters now. Canongate, Edinburgh.
  6. Skinner, G., and Clemence, M. 2017. Veracity Index. Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute.
  7. Weißkopf, M., and Witt, T. 2015. The Opportunities and Risks of Social Media  in Science Communication. Journal of Unsolved Questions. 5(2): 16-18.
  8. Vaidhyanathan, S., 2018. Antisocial media: how facebook disconnects US and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press, New York
  9. Facebook 2017. Building Global Community.

Contact: Fletcher, Sara (STFC,RAL,ISIS)