Why “fake news” isn’t going anywhere soon

Recently, President Donald Trump gave a speech on social media where he used “fake news” as synonymous for the traditional media outlets. It’s one of his favourite terms to employ. Meanwhile, a study on the 2016 US elections found that fake news was “very strongly linked” to the defection of former Democrat votes away from Hilary Clinton. But it’s a problem all around the world, not just in the US – in India, for example, viral WhatsApp lies can become so serious that they incite murder. And while the British government has officially decided not to use the term ‘fake news’ due to the many different connotations it has, a quick Google search for the phrase will bring up literally one billion results. It’s quite clear that despite years having passed since the big political scandals most linked to the phenomena occurred, the phrase and the practice are here to stay.

The problem is that ‘fake news’ can often be a lot trickier to spot than we’d like to think, because sometimes it isn’t an outright lie. Sometimes, fake news comes from a whole range of other strategies – intentional or otherwise.

Where does fake news come from?

A good example is the practice of ‘cherry picking’, a phenomenon which is closely related to confirmation bias. Cherry picking is when a speaker selectively picks parts of a big picture – say, only a certain few key statistics from a data set, or a small part of a larger quote – to illustrate their own argument, while ignoring the rest of the data. For example, climate change deniers like to use small zoomed-in parts of historical temperature graphs to try and show that there is currently a pause in the rise in temperature – even though the whole graph shows the opposite. Confirmation bias, however, is often more unintentional. For example, if you’re worried about a food substance being unhealthy and google “Is X bad for you?” you’ll likely only find and click on articles which agree with what you already believed, instead of assessing all the information available about the food.

Sometimes, though, information is simply made-up and demonstrably false: in 2017, US Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway defended a made-up figure for Trump’s inauguration ceremony attendance, calling the lie an “alternative fact”… which seems rather to contradict the definition of ‘fact’. Similarly, in November 2018, Conservative MP Rory Stewart claimed that 80% of the UK’s population supported Theresa May’s Brexit deal, before quickly backtracking and admitting that he couldn’t prove this and instead was simply “producing a figure” to illustrate his point. Had the interviewer not picked up on his porky, that figure could have quickly spread across the internet and started another round of fake news.

Unfortunately, as much as the internet can be guilty of propagating falsehoods – especially through more politically-motivated medias – they’re not the only ones spreading nonsense, and we’re not doing enough to call it out. Currently, Boris Johnson is tipped to be the UK’s next Prime Minister, even after previously being sacked twice for lying, and even after his promises as Mayor of London fell flat on their face too. (For the curious: his 2008 manifesto promised to maintain manned ticket offices at every station… and then he closed all of London's ticket offices).

The other problem with fake news…

The problem with a growing awareness of fake news is the accompanying mistrust of even reputable sources, which can cause people to turn away from experts and reputable sources and instead rely on more questionable sources and conspiracies. Just think of the scarily growing movement against vaccinations, which breeds from a rise in mistrust and a fear of authorities. It’s not helped by the fact that in some places, the authorities are complicit: in Italy, for example, the governing M5S party publicly attempts to discredit vaccination science.

But what happens when the government tries to make fake news a crime? Counties like Singapore, Germany, Malaysia, France and Russia have all passed laws against it… but this might not be as good as it sounds. In Singapore, for example, government ministers will now have the authority to decide what is fake news and order the removal of online content if it’s deemed to be “against public interest”. This could be manipulated: arguably anything affecting public perceptions of the government could be included, and so the rule could be used to censor free speech or target those who speak out for change. Alternatively, it could make online platforms over-cautious, and they may start blocking legitimate content by accident in an attempt to avoid sanctions.

So… what can we do?

There’s no easy answer. Medias may need to launch a kind of certification for quality, accurate sources, but any such standard will take a while to be implemented. In the meantime, we need to do what little we can in our own lives.

Try to stick to reputable news sources – and look out for signs of bias (almost everything has one). It’s worth looking up the major UK newspapers and their political affiliations or ownership so you’re aware of who they’re funded by and their typical editorial stance. Look out for who is quoted in the article you’re reading: are both sides of the argument included, and if not, is there a good reason? Does it use loaded language and popular buzzwords to elicit emotional responses? Does the article provide sources for its information, and are they legitimate? Try doing a search for the information elsewhere if it sounds unlikely and see if it can be corroborated.

This is why I’ve used multiple sources to back up the facts in this article, rather than just one hastily-found website after a quick Google. Above all, if you’re not too sure about what you’re saying or sharing, don’t share it. Look it up twice. Be sure. Educate yourself – because we can’t always rely on other sources to do it for us.

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