17 April 2018

Fake news is a real problem


Writing for CapX last week, Sam Dumitriu contended: “Fake news has all the signs of being a moral panic rather than a real problem.”

Now, there can be little doubt that the media is fond of writing about itself, and are notoriously inward looking. And so Sam is right to say that there is something of a moral panic around this issue. He is also right to point out the danger of some using the concept of fake news for political advantage, or as an excuse to censor the media. Fake news is certainly not a new phenomenon so it is reasonable to question why were are particularly worked up about it now.

However, the idea that it is simply a made up problem that has no real consequences is simply not so. First, let me be really clear about what is meant by fake news, as the meaning has become somewhat distorted. Fake news is information that the publisher knows is false but still shares in order to gain profit and/or political advantage. Yes, the lines can be blurred as some types of fake news have an element of truth in them that is then distorted it beyond all recognition. But in such cases the intention to distort that truth remains a problem.

There are a small number of examples of when fake news has put people’s lives at risk. In his piece, Sam says that “many Trump supporters likely believed that… Hillary was involved in a paedophile ring pizza parlour”. This brushes over quite a serious incident. In December 2016, an armed man arrived at the Comet Ping Pong Pizza parlour in Washington, DC, which fringe loons claim was the centre of Clinton run paedophile ring. Thankfully nobody was hurt. As the Pizzeria’s owner, James Alefantis said after the incident: “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”

Indeed it does. Remember when Unite leader Len McCluskey went on the Marr show parroting a conspiracy from far-left sites that the firm Portland Communications was at the heart of a plot to remove Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? Shortly after that conspiracy went mainstream, one of the then partners at the firm, Kevin Mckeever, received a death threat in which he was warned to “prepare to be Coxed”, a sick reference to the murder of Jo Cox MP, which had happened just days before.

In Kenya, the 2017 election was voided in no small part due to fake news. This was a very tense election in a politically volatile country. One survey found that 90 per cent of Kenyans had seen fake news in the run-up to the poll. Yes, one can argue that seeing fake news is not the same thing as believing it. However, the election saw widespread violence, the murder of an election official and the need to rerun the election. It is hard to believe fake news didn’t contribute to this toxic political atmosphere.

Then, of course, we get into the wider issue of the post-truth mindset that fake news induces. For that, you need to look no further than some responses to the chemical attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. There were too many responses along the lines of “isn’t it weird that it’s so close to Porton Down” for comfort. Some of the responses to the chemical weapons attack in Douma have been of a similarly disturbing ilk.

Yes, there have always been people happy to spread somewhat bizarre conspiracy theories but the way we communicate now means they no longer exist in strange clubs or the dusty bowels of the internet. Thanks to social media, fake news can easily penetrate mainstream discourse taking public debate away from evidence and common sense.

I would also argue that Sam is wrong to dismiss so readily the consequences of digital echo chambers. While people have always been more inclined to buy a newspaper that matches their worldview, that self-reinforcing infrastructure is far greater now. Sites, particularly on the alt-right and alt-left, play-off each other to ram home their message.

This matters because there is a range of academic evidence that says repetition of falsehood means it is more likely that people will believe it. Gord Pennycook, a psychologist who studies this subject at Yale University, told vox.com that if claims are repeated “even things that people have reason not to believe, they believe them more”.

So no, a moral panic about fake news will not help solve the problem but, be in no doubt, there is a very real problem to be solved.

Charlotte Henry is the author of the upcoming book 'Not Buying' - an in-depth look at the issue of fake news available from Unbound.com.