Fake news has been around for decades. But it was normally the preserve of despotic regimes. Now it’s threatening to undermine democracies across the world. The rise of the internet means that, in the words of Mark Twain, ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. You can normally assume newspapers, irrespective of their political stance, have sourced and doubled checked their facts. But with the explosion of social media, we need to adapt our mentality to make sure people start questioning the sources and veracity of their news more. While the government, rightly, commits billions to tackle cyber security to protect the nation form cyberattacks, disinformation has become a new front in the cyberwar.
This week we have finally seen tentative moves to get a grip of the issue. Ipso have launched a logo aimed at tackling fake news by giving websites a form of accreditation. Encouragingly, the BBC have unveiled a fresh initiative to help young people identify false information. But in reality these measures barely touch the surface.
The chief culprit when it comes to the spread of fake news is Facebook. It needs to step up and get real. With two billion users worldwide – and over half the UK population on the platform – it is now part of the establishment and has a moral responsibility to bring in stringent safeguards and take down fake news. Let’s be clear, it is a publisher not a carrier of information. Similarly, other social media giants need to be held to greater account when it comes to taking down bots and fake accounts that rapidly spread fake news. The reality is that we are now in a situation where people are unwittingly spreading falsehoods.
In the areas of public health and public safety, misinformation can have devastating consequences. If it’s not gripped, peddlers of hate speech and the persecution of minorities will go unchecked. In developing countries hit by humanitarian crises, misinformation about clean water and food could prove to be catastrophic. We’ve already seen the real life example of how fake news can be a matter of life and death. The quick actions of the police in the United States last December meant they arrested a man brandishing an assault rifle who entered a pizza restaurant wrongly assuming it was operating a child abuse ring, before it was too late.
Clearly there needs to be a concerted drive in schools to educate people around multiple sourcing and reverting to established and credible news sources. We should look closely at building the issue into the curriculum. And we need more third party fact checking organisations holding people to account. As the media continues to fragment, we as a country need to do more to promote older established news outlets.
Politicians so far in this country have chosen not to regulate. But I think the time has come for them to act. We could do worse than follow Germany’s lead. Social media sites peddling false information are given twenty-four hours to take down material before they are hit with fines of more than £40m if they don't comply. Furthermore, until we invest in developing some form of a fake news tracker or index we are not going to be able to quantify and grip the problem. To be quite blunt, will it take an act of unimaginable horror triggered by the spread of false information for the UK government to wake up?
Giles Kenningham is a former Number 10 special adviser and founder of PR Consultancy Trafalgar Strategy