We were the victims of fake news

Journalists take pictures during a news conference

This week, we discovered that our real work is being used to promote “fake news.” As Yahoo News has reported, an obscure website, the “Center for Global Strategic Monitoring,” has been putting policy experts’ names on articles they did not write, intermixed with actual research reposted from reputable research institutions but without appropriate attribution (presumably to give the website a veneer of credibility). Experts whose names and reputations have been hijacked in this manner have demanded that their work be removed from the site to no avail and we are exploring other avenues of response as well. But the experience sheds light on a broader challenge to modern democratic governance—a problem much more serious that a few misleading internet sites.

First, the bad news. Sites like CGSM tell us something important about how easily public information can be manipulated in the modern era. The latest research suggests that, under contemporary autocratic regimes, old-fashioned censorship—the removal of information—plays only a small part in the distortion of public opinion. Just as important are techniques like flooding the information environment with propaganda, thereby making accurate information harder to find. Modern technology makes old-fashioned censorship harder, but the spread of propaganda easier. So we should expect false information sources to continue to pollute the public dialogue in the years to come.

But there is also good news here. CGSM shows that the difference between real and fake is often clear when you look. The site is ridden with typos and grammatical errors. The “About Us” section offers no substantive background on the supposed center, and the only contact information for the site is an anonymous email account. This is simply not what a reputable information source looks like.

If purposefully misleading news is prevalent but relatively obvious, proponents of good governance need to think about new strategies to combat public misinformation. Above all, in this new media environment, advocates must ensure that the government is providing honest and transparent accounts of its activities. One of the most toxic effects of misinformation is to encourage general distrust and apathy, which is far easier to achieve when real institutions are not telling the truth, either.

For that reason, it is deeply ironic that CGSM co-opted a portion of our work for their homepage. One of us is a life-long advocate of transparency in government. The other is a political scientist whose forthcoming book examines the impact of misinformation on Americans’ policy views. Both of us are committed to the idea that an informed public is critical to the functioning of democracy. And the report CGSM chose to appropriate lays out the most innovative open government strategies designed to help ensure that citizens are receiving the accurate and timely information they need to hold their elected officials accountable.

Those lessons are more important now than ever.