Fake news is biggest problem facing society
Sitting down for dinner with my two teenage children last week and the conversation rapidly turned to the forthcoming General Election.
My eldest daughter is 16 and has a voracious appetite for news and current affairs across multiple platforms. On the other hand I’m convinced that my 14-year-old daughter’s take on the world is shaped by The Simpsons or the latest viral video on YouTube.
“Did you hear about Freddo and Jeremy Corbyn?” asked my eldest child. Now there’s a sentence I never expected to hear but on reflection Labour’s diminutive leader does look a bit like the frog-shaped piece of Cadbury’s chocolate that been the staple diet for generations of children.
“Apparently the price of Freddo bars has gone up from 25p to 30p,” she explained, “and there was a false story doing the rounds that if Jeremy Corbyn got into power he’d reverse the 5p price rise.”
Wow! Talk about bombshell news. For some reason Freddo’s 5p price rise had been ignored by the main news bulletins but it was huge on social media where consumers were incandescent with rage.
Quite where the Jeremy Corbyn line came in I don’t know but social media adds rocket fuel to the most ridiculous rumour. Welcome to the world of fake news. As a footnote to the story, my youngest daughter said she’d vote for Corbyn if he could reverse the 5p Freddo price rise and I’m not sure she was joking!
Fake news is the biggest threat facing modern society and it’s technology that has enabled it happen.
Of course mistruths, lies and rumours are nothing new. As long ago as 1918, US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson is purported to have said: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
The history books are full of stories about lying politicians, cheating celebrities and corporate scandals.
The difference now is that social media makes it so easy to share baseless rumours that people quickly believe them to be true.
Assuming I’ve not been the victim of fake news myself here’s one good example.
A story claiming that President Obama had banned reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools was published on a fake site called ABCNews.com.co, which was made to look like the respected ABC News. It generated more than 2.1 million shares, comments, and reactions on Facebook in just two months.
Another example of fake news was the story that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy.
The people behind the fake news websites get a share of the advertising revenues generated through clicks to the site so the clickbait culture is growing out of control.
Perhaps more worrying is when the politicians themselves peddle half-truths. One of the most memorable aspects of the Brexit referendum campaign was the claim on the side of the ‘Boris Battlebus’ that the UK was paying the EU £350m a week and this money could be used in the UK.
At the best the figure was misleading (the figure is thought to be £276m because of rebates) and at worst it was a lie. Either way it didn’t matter because enough people believed it. Politicians shouldn’t be able to make outlandish claims with impunity.
The problem is fake news is almost acceptable and it shouldn’t be. I’m a massive fan of Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone but uses volunteer editors to remove inaccuracies. It’s not fool-proof.
Once again unless I’ve been the victim of fake news I was reading that several news organisations reported in Ronnie Corbett’s obituary that he played one of the Teletubbies because it had said so on Wikipedia!
It’s hugely significant that Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is launching a new online publication called Wikitribune, which will aim to tackle fake news through a small team of professional reporters.
Ultimately it comes down to the fact we have to able to believe what we see with our own eyes.
It’s fascinating that a new proposal from European Athletics would see all athletics world records set before 2005 removed from the history books as the sport seeks a fresh start after the doping scandal. I feel sorry for the innocent athletes but ultimately drastic times call for drastic measures.
It’s the same with fake news. When was the last correction you saw published on social media? Corrections don’t send to travel in the same way that ridiculous stories do.
Technology giants have to police their social media platforms better. I’m delighted that Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to hire 3,000 additional staff to combat extremist and distressing content, especially in videos, on Facebook. Hopefully that will extend to weeding out fake news.
However society has to step forward and say that fake news is unacceptable. Let’s challenge our politicians to verify their statistics. Don’t share ridiculous stories because denying them oxygen is the only way they’ll die.
Let’s go after the people behind the fake news websites by making it a criminal offence. Fake news is destroying people’s lives and the time for action is now.