‘Fake news’ were the buzzwords of 2016 and its prominence rolled into 2017 as well. At a most basic level, fake news means information that it is false – factually untrue or grossly misleading or exaggerated – in the context of a ‘news’ article or a social media post.
False information has always existed in one form or another. For as long as people have gathered and shared information, inevitably, people (for their own reasons) will spread falsities.
But there is now a unique problem as social media means it spreads fast, is easily believed, and hard to disprove. There’s an old saying: ‘a lie can spread half way around the world by the time the truth has left the front door’ – now the lies are in Tweets and Facebook posts.
Fake news came to prominence in the 2016 US election campaign as malicious internet sites wanted to increase traffic to generate income so created fake stories to share on social media and attract clicks.
But the term was seized upon by president Trump and it is now synonymous with his image. In his first year as president he tweeted about the term fake news or fake media 174 times – averaging once every two days. He uses it to tarnish mainstream media sources he believes treat him unfairly.
The effect is that the term ‘fake news’ has lost all meaning – you can’t write the words without inverted commas because it has become so subjective.
The implications for our democracy are grave if fake news is proliferated and believed. What’s more, we may be reaching the point where verified facts can be dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the powerful because it doesn’t suit their agendas; the lines between fact and opinion are becoming blurred.
It is a failure in our democracy that is being exploited by tyrannical foreign powers: Russia has been implicated time and time again as using fake social media accounts to not only disseminate untruths but to divide societies in liberal democracies.
Governments are taking notice and demanding that tech companies do more. The president of France Emmanuel Macron recently proposed new ‘fake news laws’ to make social media sites reveal sources of suspicious news content and said limits will be put on how much money can be spent promoting news material on social media.
At home, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK parliament has launched an inquiry to define fake news: get to the core of why it is spreading, its effects and what can be done.
But the solution to tackling this phenomenon may be more straightforward than overarching government powers.
No one can stop the spread of all false information whether in a Facebook post, an article, or word of mouth; but if people were able to recognise when a news story or social media post was false or misleading, then the effects will be mitigated.
Education is key. Specifically, media literacy.
Media literacy can start with the basic concept that all media texts are deliberately constructed; made by humans with a specific purpose for an intended audience. It will give people critical thinking skills needed to identify inaccurate facts, rouge sources, and differentiate between fact and opinion.
For example, most people consume news without thinking about how it is a product of journalism. Everyone should be aware of how news is produced and edited by reporters, as well as the more nuanced topics of how news can be factually accurate but framed to fit with media agendas.
Media literacy is not a new concept but now it’s clear why it needs to be brought into the mainstream. It should be taught to young people in schools as part of a broader curriculum of civil education that is so desperately needed. The BBC has already started: over 1,000 schools are taking part in a mentoring scheme organised by the BBC to help pupils’ spot fake news. This info can also be provided on websites and apps for all to use.
It’s easy to feel powerless as our tumultuous world seems to bound from one crisis to the next – all playing out before our eyes on social media timelines. So in 2018 we can set an agenda of critical thinking: striving for an alert, media literate citizenry – empowering individuals as the world keeps spinning.
By Chris Park