As the DCMS Committee airs a warning about the growing dangers of fake news eclipsing real information, we’re left to wonder if the problem has already overtaken us – and if the UK is one step behind a wary international community.
Whether it’s from President Trump sounding off on Twitter or the mentions made during Facebook’s recent controversies, the term ‘fake news’ has now become part of our everyday vocabulary.
Fake news – or disinformation, alternative facts etc. – has caught nearly all of us out in some way in the past, through innocuous Facebook posts, clickbait articles, or the media picking up on a false details in the life of a celebrity.
What’s more, with a growing dependence on social media and the ability to exchange information instantly, we’ve left ourselves vulnerable to individuals and organisations who use fake news in malicious ways – and the problem may have already outgrown us.
Forming a New Reality
“Alternative facts and fake news are just other names for propaganda”
― Johnny Corn
If you’ve read about fake news in the paper or online, you may be wondering what threat it poses – especially if you consider it easy to spot.
Unfortunately, fake news is often insidious enough to be convincing. Back in 2014, the veracity of fake news was tested by Facebook when they announced that they’d be introducing a ‘satire’ tag to posts linked to websites such as The Onion. This test came about because users were complaining that they had been tricked by outrageous headlines such as ‘World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%’ or ‘CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years’ – ridiculous article headings which nonetheless have been fallen for by unsuspecting users.
Fast-forward a few years to the era of Donald Trump in the White House, and fake news has taken on a new, more dangerous life. Now, fake news has the power to construct whole realities, and the ‘alternative facts’ behind it have been used by individual politicians, companies and entire governments to bend the truth – much in the way propaganda has been utilised throughout history.
The threat posed by fake news was further highlighted by Damian Collins following the report published by the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee (DCMS). The report itself pleaded with lawmakers to tackle fake news in order to protect the democratic process, whilst Damian Collins – chairing the committee – personally warned that “we are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy – based on the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens”.
In short, the pressures that fake news can apply to the democratic process are significant enough to warrant government intervention. But to start to resolve the problem, we must first ask a different question.
Who is Responsible?
Assigning the blame for fake news is another arena where falsehoods can prove dangerous to individuals and their way of life.
In other countries, the backlash against fake news has been focused around journalists. For the most part, British newspapers – though unscrupulous at times – have managed to sidestep such widespread accusations, leaving many to wonder who is actually responsible for the fake news; both in creating it, and resolving the fallout.
This is where social media outlets find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, Facebook’s advertising platform and engagement algorithms were being cleverly manipulated without their knowledge, but on the other hand, the social media giant has been shown to be complacent with such scandals – as was the case with Cambridge Analytica.
Fake news on the platform grew to such proportions, that in the final moments of the election, Buzzfeed discovered 20 fake news stories about the election were receiving more social engagement than the top 20 news stories from 19 other outlets. Meanwhile, attempts to clear the social network of fake news have been laughable, with Facebook’s fake news policy being deemed ‘toothless’ following a congressional hearing on InfoWars’ repeated dissemination of falsehoods.
Outside of the control of social media, however, companies and teams in countries including Russia and Malaysia have been caught creating fake news articles – sometimes in huge, targeted campaigns which threaten to skew political ideas and put lives at risk.
According to the DCMS’ recent report, the onus for tackling fake news falls upon social media platforms and providers of such misinformation; the first report even suggests imposing a tax or tougher regulations for social networks, tackling election interference in the meantime.
What makes such action difficult is the nature of fake news: it’s everywhere, and it’s so easily made – for example, a waiter in Texas posted a fake note on a receipt in order to provoke anger towards an untrue incident of racism. Anybody can make up a headline now, and so the problem moves further away from us.
A Global Problem
As an intangible and easy-to-commit malpractice, fake news has easily spread throughout the world, though with different consequences and effects in different countries.
In some areas, for example, the Indian government threatened true journalism in a crackdown (which was soon retracted) and 21 journalists in 6 different countries were jailed on ‘fake news’ charges in 2017. Meanwhile, WhatsApp had to step in when its messaging app was being used to spread rumours which led to several mob lynchings in smaller Indian villages.
Closer to home, however, the USA have started to wise up. Facebook recently twigged on a campaign to interfere with mid-term elections, banning a whole raft of pages before any real damage could come about.
But how are we dealing with it in the UK? And is the growing problem of fake news indicative of more insidious issues in governance? According to Gian Volpicelli, writing for WIRED, yes.
In his recent opinion piece following the DCMS Committee’s report publication, Volpicelli highlights the differences in how the UK and the US have approached the topic of technology and data being harnessed by enemy nations and organisations. For the UK, the problem – Volpicelli suggests – is indicative of the UK being unprepared for such a threat.
Our electoral process, for example, as well as our leaving the EU and the safety of GDPR, could leave us more vulnerable than other western countries because the systems we have in place aren’t up to date enough to face off against social media – and our attentions are directed elsewhere.
The problem is, at least, being taken seriously – and the government have shown a willingness to listen and act. Before any action can take place, however, the blame must be assigned – or entirely discarded, the issue being approached as a blanket problem – to direct the fight. Otherwise, we might just find ourselves believing more and more of the false headlines – until we start to believe them ourselves.
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