Since the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016, the term ‘fake news’ has become a significant source of concern. Recently, the EU Commission and the UK Parliament have condemned the phenomenon as a threat to their democratic processes and values. However, political disinformation is nothing new, and empirical studies suggest that fake news has not decided crucial elections, that most readers do not believe the online fake news stories they read, and that political polarization in Western democracies like the US began to increase long before online fake news existed. The question then is: how exactly does fake news threaten democracies? This paper argues that online fake news threatens democratic processes because it undermines citizens’ epistemic trust in each other. This in turn threatens to undermine the perceived legitimacy of democratic institutions as a whole. While online fake news is a symptom of a much larger issue (how has the Internet affected democracies, and how can we use its positive power while checking its potential harms?), it deserves particular attention given the potential danger it presents for the viability and the legitimacy of the democratic process.
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