Truth be told – fake news is threat­en­ing democ­racy

Yorkshire Post - - OPINION -

THERE’S AN ir­ri­tat­ing and rather nasty fake news story cur­rently pur­su­ing me around the in­ter­net.

It fea­tures a clum­sily doc­tored pic­ture of Deb­o­rah Meaden, one of the pan­el­lists on the BBC pro­gramme show­ing her with a black eye above a scream­ing head­line ex­hort­ing me to click on it to find out what hap­pened to her.

Of course, I haven’t, how­ever of­ten it pops up on web­sites, be­cause it’s ob­vi­ously com­plete rub­bish and al­most cer­tainly linked to some sort of scam.

But I’ll bet a lot of peo­ple have, and in do­ing so they will have been sucked a lit­tle deeper into the murky world of fake news.

Just how murky it is will be ex­plored by the De­part­ment of Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport Se­lect Com­mit­tee later to­day, a sure sign that this rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non, not re­ally recog­nised un­til a cou­ple of years ago, has grown into a real threat to democ­racy.

It re­ally is that se­ri­ous. The re­spon­si­ble main­stream me­dia, whether in print, broad­cast or on­line, is be­ing un­der­mined by a tor­rent of fake news that is sow­ing un­cer­tainty in the minds of many over just what they can be­lieve or trust.

And with­out a trusted, im­par­tial me­dia to hold power to ac­count, whether at lo­cal or na­tional level, the fab­ric of democ­racy is put at risk. In the most ex­treme ex­am­ples, en­tire pop­u­la­tions are be­ing de­lib­er­ately de­ceived by the cyn­i­cal de­ploy­ment of fake news. quite above board about them, the US pres­i­dent’s first in­stinct ap­pears to be to try to cast doubt on their ve­rac­ity.

In do­ing so, he’s adopt­ing ex­actly the same tac­tics as Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dists. The prob­lem is that as the leader of the world’s most pow­er­ful democ­racy – for good or ill – his in­flu­ence in sow­ing doubt over what can be trusted is im­mense, and po­ten­tially much more harm­ful than a bunch of Krem­lin stooges could ever hope to be.

How per­ni­cious the spread of fake news has be­come in our coun­try was shown by the wild con­spir­acy the­o­ries sur­round­ing the Gren­fell Tower fire in Lon­don last year.

Even as the au­thor­i­ties were get­ting to grips with it, al­le­ga­tions of es­tab­lish­ment cover-ups over how many died and the causes of the blaze were gain­ing ground. They have never gone away, as shown by some sur­vivors’ distrust of the of­fi­cial in­quiry into the tragedy.

The Wild West as­pect of the in­ter­net is not sud­denly go­ing to stop throw­ing up plau­si­ble-look­ing sites that draw in the gullible, and the self-per­pet­u­at­ing na­ture of con­spir­acy the­o­ries that thrive there is only ever go­ing to per­suade fol­low­ers that gen­uine, rep­utable news providers are sim­ply part of the cover-up of the real truth, which is still be­ing hid­den.

And the most gullible of all, in­evitably, are the young, get­ting so much of what they know of the world from bite-sized pieces of in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia.

This is fer­tile ground for ped­lars of fake news, who have no scru­ple about hood­wink­ing younger peo­ple into be­hav­ing – or even vot­ing – in a par­tic­u­lar man­ner.

It is still pos­si­ble that the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump owed some­thing to this sort of ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Wor­ry­ingly, it is in­creas­ingly likely that in fu­ture elec­tions both here and abroad, at least a pro­por­tion of the elec­torate will cast their votes not af­ter lis­ten­ing to and con­sid­er­ing the ar­gu­ments or pledges of ri­val can­di­dates, but be­cause they have swal­lowed de­lib­er­ate mis­in­for­ma­tion.

The prob­lem lies in com­bat­ing fake news. How­ever dili­gently MPs probe the prob­lem to­day and in the fu­ture, rec­om­mend­ing any leg­isla­tive re­sponse is go­ing to be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.

But it has to be tack­led, and viewed not just as an an­noy­ance, but as a gen­uine threat to any free so­ci­ety.

Schools have al­ready started teach­ing on­line safety, and the time is here to ex­tend that into help­ing the young dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween what is real, prop­erly sourced news and in­for­ma­tion and what is fake.

The mes­sage that just be­cause some­thing is eye-catch­ing, or be­lieved by on­line friends who pass it on, doesn’t mean that it is true won’t be easy to ac­cept for a gen­er­a­tion which has grown up ab­sorb­ing in­for­ma­tion this way. But it’s a les­son they need to learn all the same.

Has the leader of the world’s most pow­er­ful democ­racy now adopted ex­actly the same tac­tics as Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dists?

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