I have been concerned for some time about the way that even apparently intelligent people will believe and propagate anything they see on their social media feeds. We now appear to trust those sources we have selected ourselves (be they friends, celebrities or industry influencers) over the national accredited media and occasionally our own common sense. This means, as the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee has now recognised that many within our society are now vulnerable to ‘fake news’.
We all know that in the information age anyone can now be their own newsroom; a phenomenon that some companies are using to assume greater control of their own narratives. However, what may be less widely noted is the impact that this democratisation of news has had on the accredited media. Broadsheets and broadcasters are now fighting the 24-hour news cycle that the internet has created. The time pressures this cycle creates mean that sources we would once have assumed would fact check thoroughly before publishing, are now using woolly phrases like ‘it is believed’ and ‘early sources suggest’ to enable them to get out ahead of the story; updating articles online as stories unfold, instead of waiting for a full picture.
Leaving aside the impact this has on PR (as I’m sure readers are aware of the pressures this creates to avoid being listed as ‘not available to comment’), to me this lowers the threshold between broadsheet and tabloid, tabloid and sensationalist clickbait sites.
Clickbait, using misleading headlines to generate site clicks, is a real promulgator of fake news. With the speed at which we move through our information sources, and the limited attention we provide, it is hardly surprising that information can be accepted and shared based on the headline alone, and if this is true, we may all be guilty of spreading fake news of some kind.
One example seen on my own Facebook feed is this anonymous meme about William Kamkwamba. The text below the image is true, the text above is false. Kamkwamba’s achievements were first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2007 (10 years ago), his best-selling autobiography was published in 2010, he has given TED Talks, an award-winning documentary was made about him, etc. These are all facts I learnt by Googling “African boy who learnt how to build a windmill from a book”: top hits for this search include William Kamkwamba’s Wikipedia page, the Amazon page for his book and the BBC’s 2009 coverage of his story. And yet I came very close to sharing this meme, not because of the statement above the picture about the media, but because I wanted to share this boy’s incredible achievements (I should say man because he’s now nearly 30).
This anecdote demonstrates that social sharing is a casual behaviour, motivated by emotional drivers: our love of sharing cat pictures and funny videos is driven by the same behavioural and social instincts. As such, we are applying the same behavioural patterns to sharing news and information as we are to sharing trivia, and herein the danger lies. If social sharing is a casual behaviour it is hardly surprising that we do not give enough attention to the decision of whether or not to ‘share’, making rapid decisions without considering the possible damage falsehoods may do.
Adding to this is the simple truth that no one story is likely to create a particularly large problem; if William Kamkwamba is thought to be 15 years younger than he really is it won’t do him any harm. The harm comes from the accumulation of fake stories. In my example, I viewed the anti-media introduction to the image as irrelevant, but had I shared it it might have been seen by friends of friends of friends who have been losing faith in the media, for which I have unintentionally provided further evidence.
Donald Trump’s criticism of media reporting around the inauguration crowds in his first week of office, may go down in history, along with his press secretary’s ‘alternative facts’. While the events felt farcical, they emphasised the current vulnerability of the media to attack from some highly influential sources. If trust in the mainstream media is worn thin, then the rise of fake news and even propaganda may be an all too present danger.
So at the start of 2017 we are faced with an unexpected choice: how can we protect the freedom of the press so vital to protecting democracy and simultaneously fight fake news?
My answer to this is two-fold. First, the onus is on the media to prove themselves worthy of our trust by seeking facts over clicks, fact-checking thoroughly, refusing to use clickbait, and being clear in their reporting when they are moving from fact to interpretation or opinion. Second, it is time for us to take more responsibility in our personal sharing to be critical of the information we see and to adjust our sharing behaviour accordingly.
I hope that the government discussions will provide some achievable recommendations for tackling fake news that will not impact on the freedoms of the press. It is certainly a fine line to tread.