Are news paywalls propagating fake news?

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh 6 November 2017

In the era of the social network, we have become increasingly susceptible to the plight of fake news. Blamed as one of the more important factors in the momentous political upsets of the past year, from Britain’s decision to leave the EU to the election of the populist demagogue Donald Trump in the United States, the ubiquitous dissemination of fake news across the internet certainly affected the political decisions made by vast numbers of people.

The causes for the vast spread of fake news amongst some of the less socioeconomically well-off demographics in the USA and in Britain have been the source of profound speculation in the postmortems of both paradigm-shattering political events. The private company Cambridge Analytics was revealed to have developed algorithms which targeted particular voters both in the UK and across the pond with pro-Trump, pro-Brexit and very often fake sources of news. However, there may well have been another very important reason for the highly noticeable demographic split (at least in the UK) between those who voted for as opposed to against Brexit; a factor which could have played a significant role in the split are news paywalls.

Whilst many of the “establishment-backing” mainstream media sources in Britain have online news paywalls, asking readers to pay a subscription to access the news, the vast majority of the blogs and websites propagating fake news (which more often than not contained pro-Brexit news articles) have no such barrier. This financial asymmetry in the quality of news available to people may well have played a significant role in the equivalent asymmetries observed between higher and lower income groups’s decisions in the European referendum.

The question as to whether or not media companies should have paywalls is a difficult one to settle, as a complete lack of paywalls (which is a model employed by media groups such as The Guardian) can often result in significant financial loss for the companies and by consequence a decrease in the quality of the news sourced. However, by putting up a news paywall, as media groups such as The Times do, can cause completely unacceptable asymmetries in the quality of news accessible to people with different financial circumstances. It is utterly unfair and against every imaginable principle of democracy that those with fewer economic resources will be able to access a lower quality (and often completely false) information as opposed to the good quality journalism which can better inform them to make decisions which will improve their lives. The most effective solution I can imagine is for media groups to be funded by the state, but to remain editorially independent to ensure that the best quality journalism is accessible to all, irrespective of their socioeconomic situations. By doing so, not only would we begin to close the gap between rich and poor in terms of quality of accessible information, but we would also be able to break the vicious cycle which appears to have grasped our political system over the past few years.