If no news is good news, what is fake news?
This is not fake news, but the UK has opened up a select committee parliamentary inquiry into fake news – its growth and its impact on different age groups and on elections. Damian Collins, the committee’s chair, said the rise of propaganda and fabrications is “a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general”.
Although fake news is not new, fake news from non-accountable sources, based on no facts at all seems to be increasing and, with social media, it can quickly undermine the government and democratic systems of a country. In retrospect, I feel quite fortunate that my 15 years working in government communications in the UK preceded fake news. Managing facts and news was no small job, but to encounter blatant fakery on a mass scale would have been at best annoying and at worst undermining the government’s time and hard work.
There’s no doubt that the inquiry feels right for the times. Propelled by the power of social media, the recent presidential election campaign in the US was littered with examples of fake news, including this hoax from October that claimed President Obama had banned reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Published on a site similar in appearance to ABC News, it generated more than 2.1 million shares, comments and reactions on Facebook in just two months. And then there is “Pizzagate”, which so nearly led to deadly consequences. These are just a couple of examples – there are plenty to choose from. This study from academics at Stanford University found that pro-Trump fake stories were shared 30 million times, and pro-Clinton (i.e., anti-Trump) fake stories a total of 7.6 million times.
Set for scrutiny
What concerns our MPs most is that fake news spreads fast and undermines our democratic systems and the media in general. That’s important, but will the inquiry also consider the need for our systems of government and traditional media to do better at communicating what is truth? To consider one and not the other feels like half the story to me.
Experts have lined up to say that fake news is not an opinion we don’t like but a story based on no truth whatsoever. However, there are also countless examples of government, MPs and the traditional media (be it online or print) writing at least half-facts and presenting them as true fact. MPs and ministers rarely admit they are wrong and continue to make announcements based on promises of impact that we cannot quantify or be sure of. Even the corrections columns in newspapers are still buried down the page.
So what about government’s ability to select and alter facts, and how is this undermining legitimacy? For years when I was a government press secretary, people would often assume that my job was to spin the news, select the best facts and tell a good story. It was a harsh conclusion but one I wrestled with daily. I worked hard to ensure we were as plain and clear as possible, but knowing we could not always give people the whole picture was frustrating – I was not issuing “fake news”, as described today, but it was selective news and partial facts and this process continues.
And neither the opposition nor the media would place enough pressure on government to keep asking – so how will this be done and for what measurable outcome? It was all about the announcement but not tracking it. I would often tell our teams of press officers that we had to do better at explaining, but that was hard when we lacked hard facts to talk about or ministers happy to explain the difficult trade-offs we were making. Soon enough, overblown promises were broken and citizens would say this pledge was made-up news, further eroding trust in government.
Fake news around terror incidents and those that incite racial hatred, violence and prejudice are dangerous and should be shut down – no one can disagree there. But the comments we see in many traditional newspapers could be said to be doing the same, only less blatantly, drip-feeding words on immigration such as ‘flooding in’; government does this too – even when Theresa May recently used the term “millions” when describing those who wanted to come to the UK.
The inquiry must surely consider the role of government communications and whether it genuinely builds up the systems that are there to enable trust and therefore to defeat fake news – or whether it serves to undermine them.
A growing danger caused by our own actions?
Is the spread of fake news a danger to our perceptions of government effectiveness and is it over-influencing our views? That’s hard to track, but we are responsible as news curators and editors ourselves too; we cannot be depicted as inactive swallowers of news.
We may not knowingly spread blatantly fake news, but we do decide whether to share news that borders on the unacceptable in tone, or highlights an issue we don’t know how to discuss face to face. I see many Twitter profiles that say “sharing a tweet does not mean I agree or accept as fact”, so why are we sharing it then? Are we sending another message to government – listen to us, let’s debate this?
The inquiry may want to also consider why we do share what we do. Perhaps one question to explore is whether the legitimate channels of communication to government seem disconnected from us. Just a fortnight ago, a petition to debate the forthcoming state visit of Donald Trump was seen to be thrown out by government. Even if the reasons for this action were sound, the communication of the government’s decision to go ahead with the visit was weak. It only adds to this growing sense that government is not listening or in touch.
I do hope that this inquiry goes deep and considers us as more than sheep being led down a path to the slaughterhouse of democracy. I hope, too, that the government will consider its own role in the communication of fake news and not confine itself to the media.
Our confidence and faith in all authorities of power is decreasing – whether it be government or parliament, supermarkets, banks, media or the automobile industry. Neither government, media nor citizens are therefore passive in this phenomenon and I, for one, hope that the inquiry will not just help us tackle fake news but also help government improve its own credibility rating with us, so we can start to build trust again.
After all, if a fake news alert or credibility rating is placed on all news or official statements, I wonder how government itself would fare?
How governments can improve legitimacy is one of the Centre for Public Impact‘s (CPI’s) key areas of work this year. Legitimacy is one of the Public Impact Fundamentals and CPI will be exploring why and where legitimacy has weakened, what the root causes are and what governments can do about it. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to stay in touch with CPI about this work.
The author, Nadine Smith, is Global Director of Marketing and Communications at Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation.
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