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How quickly can fake news travel?

Fake news is undeniably a problem and technology is making it worse. Yesterday there was an announcement about the Duke of Edinburgh’s decision to retire by the end of the year, when he will be 96 years old; you can have the debate about the extent to which this is actually news (today’s papers certainly think so), but it’s instructive to look at what happened in the media before the mid-morning announcement.

The Sun has understandably taken its story about how the Prince had died overnight off its website, but a number of papers including the Independent have noted its publication. Given that the meeting at the Palace to discuss the change in arrangements was called in the small hours of the morning perhaps nobody should blame the paper for making assumptions. It wasn’t the only one; French media confirmed his demise and this Reddit thread trying to work out exactly what the Palace’s declaration that the Queen and her husband were alive actually meant is fascinating reading. You can see how conspiracy theorists work when a statement like that is deemed open to misinterpretation.

These were genuine mistakes; errors because something had happened followed by a lot of speculation, but Twitter and Facebook were full of the story.

So what is fake news?

Genuine mistakes taking flight on the Internet can be a cause for concern. It’s why the British Council has launched a project to fight falsehoods on the Web, of which there have been many. Some were perpetrated deliberately: a story about American vice president Mike Pence saying people needed more Jesus Care instead of healthcare has been debunked by the Snopes fact checking website.

More disturbingly, some appear to be factual but are labelled “fake” when they are inconvenient. US president Donald Trump is the past master. Himself the victim of actual fake news (he never said in the 1990s that if he ever ran for president he’d do so as a Republican because they’re so dumb) it may be understandable from his bubble that if someone says something he doesn’t like, his people write it off as fake. It started with the size of the crowd at his inauguration and has continued with many examples since.

Good journalistic practice used to involve sourcing disputed facts from at least two sources. There is now an argument that this is no longer good enough as you can substantiate just about any view you please on the Internet, multiple times over.

Where this leaves us in the middle of a general election in which EU leaks say one thing about our prime minister’s conduct at a dinner and she herself accuses Brussels of harbouring people who want to distort our internal election result is difficult to say. But we’d better find a new metric to measure fakery and a way around it, and we’d better do it quickly.