So, Fake News is in the news again. This time, the Culture, Media, and Sport committee is to hold an investigation into the phenomenon – which is admirable. What it hopes to achieve, though, is perhaps more open to question.
Certainly, it is a trend that ought to cause alarm. Social media has made it incredibly simple to spread any kind of malicious or just-plain-silly story. Concerns have even been raised that fake news might have influenced the US election: BuzzFeed reported that, in the last three months of the election, the top 20 fake stories were shared 8.7m times, compared with 7.3m shares for the top 20 stories from reputable sources.
Of course, as we have endlessly noted, people tend to self-select sources of content that echo their existing beliefs. As Annalee Newitz points out in her excellent blog, Facebook has exacerbated this by removing human editors and replacing them with algorithms that work on the ‘people who bought that…’ principle. There is, she argues, an incentive for Facebook to encourage like-minded content: as users confronted with something they don’t agree with are more likely to leave their Facebook page – and Facebook’s advertising revenue depends on dwell-time.
Perhaps it is the expectation we have of social media – that these views are coming from ‘our people’ – that makes fake news so easily accepted. Newitz argues that Facebook should get rid of its news feed, because it is not news. It is unfiltered and unchecked: whatever the company’s protestations, this content is given credibility by the simple fact of Facebook publishing it, and labelling it as news.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon, of course. We may remember the humour of the Sunday Sport’s World War 2 Bomber Found on the Moon headline, but in truth fake news often has a sinister intention. Insidious fake stories as old as the blood libel still have their currency – the recent hideous made-up story of the bodies in the freezer is in this tradition.
The fact is that much fake news is simply propaganda. And this is where the story may have a positive spin for the news media. Fake news comes and goes in cycles; it tends to be allowed to thrive in times of complacency, and reaches a tipping point in a time of crisis. Unless sustained under authoritarian regimes, fake news eventually collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies.
A prerequisite of democracy is a free and responsible press. When people begin to realise that they are being fed falsehoods, they start to look for trusted sources. They look for facts they know have been checked, sources they can rely on. They look for proper journalism.
As a possible sign of a backlash against fake news, in the last few weeks 200,000 people have subscribed to the New York Times. The Washington Post and the Atlantic have increased circulations, and ProPublica has seen a rise in donations. In the UK, current affair magazines (Economist, New Statesman, Private Eye, Spectator, The Week) all saw rises in subs as the last election and Brexit debate descended into name-calling.
So, if MPs want to do something to stop the tide of fake news, they should do two things: first, encourage UK citizens to start subscribing to reputable media outlets where sources, stories, and facts are double-checked; and two, table a motion condemning a US President who uses TV to present lies and alternative facts, and then labels genuine news outlets as ‘fake’ when they correct him.
That would be a start.