“I have been sadly mis-quoted on both Twitter and Facebook!” – Abraham Lincoln 1864.
Some fake news is easier to spot than others but the who, what, where and when of fake news is one that is very much in the spotlight now and rightly so! Yet it is not a new phenomenon with cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper commenting on it in 1894.
Fake news has crashed into all our lives in the 2010s and most notably in the Trump election campaign in the US and the Leave campaign in the 2016 UK referendum. If Fake news started out as stories which are easily proved as untrue yet have an appeal to certain sectors of society it has now expanded, most notably by President Trump, to be a comment used to describe news that although accurate is simply not liked so doubt is cast upon its validity by “shouting” – either literally or in the press – “FAKE NEWS” at it.
The spread of the use of fake news has been greatly facilitated by the universal use of social media and the growth of news consumption on the internet. Newspapers around the world are seeing their readership numbers reduce while, at the same time, sources of news online are multiplying. It is always possible to simply ignore an article in a printed newspaper but with online news providers and in social media you can simply search only for news which interests you. On social media manipulation of the sources of news is even more insidious in as much as surfers are fed leads which matches sources or political views which you have already used.
Fake news is, almost entirely, politically based – the British Medical Council is unlikely, in the extreme, to run an online story about a cure for dementia which does not actually work or perhaps does not even exist and yet branches of the political establishment appear happy to promote as facts unsubstantiated comments which are then picked up by other sources to ensure that what is, not to mince words, a lie, is spread more widely gaining credibility with ever ‘retweet’ or ‘share’.
Fake news is unlikely to ‘convert’ the core supporters of any political movement although it may reinforce people’s entrenched positions but it can be used to shed doubt amongst those undecided or only marginal supporters of a cause. We now live in a world of the instant, a fast-moving world where sound bites and headlines rulemaking fake news easier to spread. The impossibly long named International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has come up with some suggestions to help recognise fake news including checking the both the source and the author of the piece, reading beyond one article and looking for supporting sources, checking the date of the piece and asking yourself if it is intended to be a satirical piece. All this is very laudable and would assist in identifying real news from fake news the reality of the life of a person rushing to work means that they read a headline and maybe the first sentence or two of the piece that pops up in their news feed before reaching their bus or train stop – this person will simply not have either the time or, probably, the inclination to apply the suggested tests above.
As a measure of the serious potential threat posed by fake news, in December 2016 Alex Younger, head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service openly called fake news damaging to democracy and a threat to our sovereignty before promising that his department would combat propaganda and fake news to “ …give his (the UK) government a strategic advantage in the information warfare arena …”. However the resources of law and order are limited and have many calls made on them and fake news is like the Hydra – as one source is blocked another can, almost immediately, pop up in its place. It is difficult to see how the fake news branch of what is no exaggeration to call cyber warfare can be controlled especially when mainstream political leaders not only fail to criticise it but actively promote it.
The lack of editorial control means that news, whether fake or true can come from a multitude of sources. For example, this piece was written in my study in Liverpool and although I have fact-checked it I might easily not have done and it could circulate freely and quickly in many countries. One word of warning – the quotation at the head of this piece from Abraham Lincoln is, I believe, almost certainly FAKE NEWS!