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Fake News – empowering the truth-seekers

December 10, 2019

A question for parents: did you bring your children up to speak the truth? Naturally, most of us would answer yes. The next question is: did you help your children learn to tell the difference between truth and lies? Not so many, I suggest.

The other day I came across a simple test for detecting online misinformation. It was produced by First Draft, an organisation that, according to its website, “is a global non-profit that supports journalists, academics and technologists working to address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age”.

The SHEEP test is an excellent critical thinking aid. It should be taught in every secondary school as a mandatory part of the National Curriculum. Hence the question about our kids being able to detect falsehoods. But even if that started happening, a huge percentage of our population is still reliant on common sense, curiosity and an actual desire to sniff out disinformation.

And that, unfortunately, is something that most of us don’t have the time and inclination to do.

Received wisdom is that “fake news” is eagerly lapped up by millions of social media users, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and that the social media is the source of the problem. If that were the case, then it would be an entirely new phenomenon, which of course it isn’t. Goebbels did a decent job without the social media, as did countless other governments and organisations that throughout recorded history have spread lies for political, financial and institutional advantage.

As the current UK General Election campaign shows, while disinformation is spread widely and deliberately via the social media, it also needs influencers who will nudge others to take it seriously. And as research – such as that carried out by people like Marc Owen Jones – shows, it’s not just bots that spread the lies.

As an example, here’s what appears to be an obvious attempt to attack the story of the sick child in Leeds that caused Boris Johnson such grief yesterday:

As Alex Andreou pointed out on Twitter, these three people “all have the same friend. They all have the same person writing their tweets.” Further digging on Twitter reveals that they are just three of many people tweeting identical comments. But using the SHEEP test, are these tweets genuine? Do these people exist? Who knows?

Real journalists take up stories – false or otherwise – and send them on their way. Hence Channel 4’s boob in misinterpreting Boris Johnson’s words about immigration – people of colour versus people of talent being allowed into the country. And most recently, there was the story about a minister’s aide being assaulted by protesters, which turned out to be untrue.

For me, the real problem is people’s willingness to believe stuff because it conforms to their world view. The social media is merely another, albeit highly efficient, route to market for ideas that will implant themselves in fertile soil. What politicians fear most is that once the idea has been let loose, there is little they can do to rebut it to the satisfaction of millions of voters who have no interest or involvement in the social media. And for unscrupulous politicians, that is precisely the effect they rely upon.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times that people I know have repeated the old lie, first put forward by the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, about Britain facing an invasion of Turkish immigrants. When I try to rebut it, the response I get is to the effect that “well, immigration is still a problem”. In other words, they have a view, based perhaps on personal experience and perhaps also on previous lies, and nothing I can say will change it.

So yes, it’s absolutely right to discredit fake news, and ironically the social media makes it easier through analysis of sources to identify and prove falsehoods. But in the long term it’s possible that we will only regain respect for the truth after we have experienced the catastrophic consequences of lies. Brexit may or may not be that catastrophe in the UK.

Even if we educate every generation of schoolchildren in the art of critical thinking, it will be fifty years before those lessons become truly effective. We can’t wait that long. So what’s to be done?

The social media companies are coming under increasing pressure to root out falsehood, particularly in the political arena. Twitter has responded by banning political advertising. Facebook has resisted, taking the view that it’s up to the audience to figure out what’s true and what’s not. Not exactly an overwhelming response.

One way forward would be to set up a mechanism for disqualifying politicians from standing for office – or throwing them out of office – if they demonstrably tell falsehoods.

There are parallels. Many professional associations disbar members on grounds of misconduct. And if I, as a company director, misrepresent the facts about my company, there is every possibility that I might be found unfit to be a director under the Company Directors Disqualification Act and barred from serving as such in the future.

Also, political parties and pressure groups could be fined for making false statements, particularly in connection with elections.

Neither of these measures would be 100% effective. You would need to prove that the falsehoods were deliberate rather than accidental. If they emanated from proxies, you would also need to prove that they were being promulgated with the knowledge and approval of the beneficiaries – the politicians or their parties. But they might make people like Boris Johnson a little more careful about what they say.

The other oft-touted remedy would be to define the social media companies in law as information providers – and as such responsible for the stuff that appears on their sites – rather than the neutral platforms they claim to be today.

To bring these changes about you would need to counter ferocious opposition from both the politicians and social media companies. Which is why I believe that only a catastrophe resulting from fake news would produce sufficient pressure on lawmakers to act.

You could argue that one such disaster, a war fought in Iraq justified by fake evidence of weapons of mass destruction, had little effect on our tolerance of political lies. But the 2003 Iraq War, however catastrophic for the people of Iraq, did not directly affect the social fabric of the participant countries. Brexit, or some other unknown future event, might.

In the absence of some seismic event, we are left with the efforts of pressure groups, some of which are highly effective in shaping public opinion. Led by Donkeys (@ByDonkeys on Twitter) for example, gained wide publicity by their videos projected on streets in the constituencies of Brexiteer MPs, that called out the inconsistencies of those MPs’ statements. But most pressure groups have, or are perceived to have, a political agenda, which means that they are not trusted by those who don’t share the agenda.

How easy would it be to set up a truly independent organisation that has one purpose only: the exposure of falsehoods in public life? Not easy at all, I suspect. The BBC would claim that political impartiality was embedded in its DNA, an assertion that would produce a wry smile from all the political parties that routinely accuse it of bias.

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. None of us want some disaster to ruin lives and livelihoods. So one step in the right direction would be for social media companies to go some way towards restoring their ragged reputations by funding an independent foundation dedicated to identifying and calling out falsehoods – regardless of their source or underlying motivation – in the public arena. First Draft, which receives funding from multiple sources including Google, Twitter and Facebook, clearly does valuable work. In addition to its training services, it runs a website called Crosscheck UK, which features stories about disinformation in the public space.

But we need an organisation that goes further. According to its website “CrossCheck is not a fact-checking service. We will debunk obvious falsehoods and present evidence around disputed online material, but CrossCheck is dedicated to the stories and context behind disinformation rather than labelling individual pieces as true or false.”

In my opinion that’s not enough. We need an organisation that actively warns of disinformation and analyses potential fake news stories that are referred to it. It needs to call out lies when it can if has the evidence to do so. It needs to be the default place to go to find out about fake news. And it needs to be able to react swiftly to referrals, given how quickly disinformation spreads. Above all, it needs to build trust in its expertise, integrity and lack of bias.

Would such an organisation be as effective in reaching their intended audience as guerrilla tacticians such as Led By Donkeys? I don’t know. And would they be able to answer the question posed by Pontius Pilate – “what is truth?” Again, debatable.

But to have an unimpeachable gold standard for truth-telling prepared to embarrass the liars without fear or favour would surely be a start.

We have to do something. If climate change is the physical challenge of our century, then surely contempt for truth is the moral challenge.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK

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