Here’s the truth: ‘fake news’ is not social media’s fault

But we are living in a post-truth society where it is extraordinarily difficult to correct falsehoods passed on so swiftly and indiscriminately through the net

Remember how mainstream media’s lies and distortions were going to be corrected by people using social media?

Now we have mainstream media trying to cope with fake news distributed through social media.

To add to the drama, we have fake claims by digital moguls that they can do something positive to stop the dissemination of fake news.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, having initially denied that fake news was problematic, now wants us to believe that “we’ve been working on this problem for a long time.” Really? So it is a problem after all?

As for Google, its chiefs seem to think fake news will be strangled to death by removing advertising tools that enable sites to make money by spreading lies.

But the fake news phenomenon is not only driven by shysters seeking profit. Some of it is propagandistic (as was clear during the US presidential election) and some of it is simply mischievous.

Politicians have no right to complain. Down the years so many of them have played fast and loose with the truth. Their spin doctors turned lying into an art form.

This year’s elections on either side of the Atlantic confirmed that we may, sadly, be living in a post-truth society.

Americans have elected a lying president in Donald Trump. Britons have voted to leave the European Union in a campaign noted for abundant lies.

Mainstream media has been blindsided by the lying phenomenon. Cynics will surely say that its chiefs are upset by the rise of competing liars who appear to do the job so much better than them.

So be it. But let’s also consider how difficult it is nowadays for journalists who think they are being fair and balanced (not in a Fox News way) in their reporting.

Their impartiality tools just don’t work any longer. For example, during the Brexit debate, the views of the overwhelming majority of scientists were “balanced” in a BBC discussion by the opinion of a spokesman for a fringe body. There was no equivalence.

Barack Obama made a similar observation in a New Yorker interview in saying: “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

His complaint about is that, in the new media environment, “everything is true and nothing is true.” In fact, as the BBC instance shows, it happens across all media.

The real problem with new media is the speed with which falsehoods are spread and the difficulty of providing countervailing corrective information.

I have just faced the consequences of this phenomenon. Last week, the students’ union at City, University of London passed a stupid motion banning the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express from the campus.

None of the 500 or so students currently studying journalism at City voted for the motion. Indeed, only one of them appears to have attended the meeting (and voted against the ban).

Yet, on Facebook, a number of people – including current and former journalists – misread the stories about the vote and began to criticise City’s journalism students for doing something they had not done.

Despite my unequivocal statement about journalism students having had no responsibility for the motion, and similar forthright denials by my colleagues, the lie proved difficult to quash.

People picked up on the story days later and, unaware of the truth, repeated it. So denials had to be ceaselessly reiterated. A myth had been created and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are still people who believe it.

It’s not the fault of social media (you can’t blame the platform), but it is a consequence of it, because lies can be passed on so swiftly and indiscriminately.

And, of course, it is also about human fallibility. Lies that play to our prejudices are more easily believed and we pass them on thoughtlessly, exacerbating the problem.

Quoting Obama again, he said of new media: “The capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal – that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarise the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

Yes, and here’s a further irony. There is a well-known adage that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its trousers on.”

It is usually attributed to Winston Churchill. But the website Quote Investigator, which substitutes shoes for trousers incidentally, suggests it was coined many, many years before Churchill got to it.

So even a quote about how lies gain currency could be false. And we can’t blame social media for that, can we?

 

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