Fake That! The rise of fake news, and what to do about it

Alan Apperley, Senior Lecturer, School of Film, Media and Broadcasting

On December 4, 2016, 28-year old Edgar Maddison Welch from Salisbury, North Carolina, walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, and started shooting. Welch was responding to a trending news topic that the restaurant was at the heart of a child-sex ring involving key members of the Democratic Party, possibly including former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

This story, which has come to be known as ‘Pizzagate’, is an example of fake news. It has been debunked by online fact-checking sites such as Snopes.com, and by many major newspapers and news outlets from the Huffington Post, via the Washington Post (whose journalists Woodward and Bernstein exposed the original ‘-gate’ scandal – Watergate – in 1972) to the UK’s own Independent newspaper.

Welch’s actions on that December day might well have passed quickly out of the public’s mind. After all, none of the three shots he fired hit anyone, and in the USA there are always plenty more shootings for journalists to write about.

But the original paedophile story emerged against the backdrop of the US presidential campaigns. And it spread like wildfire, not in traditional forums such as newspapers or broadcast newsrooms, but on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and via websites such as Infowars.com, which seem to exist in order to generate such material.

The role of the news media has always had an almost sacred role in democratic societies. We’ve always looked to journalists to expose corruption amongst politicians and the powerful, and to hold them to account. The First Amendment of the United States constitution which protects freedom of speech was put there to protect the news media of the day for precisely this reason. But a right to free speech does not entail a duty to tell the truth.

Of course, there has always been fake news. The Zinoviev Letter, linking the UK Labour Party to communism scuppered the party’s chances four days before the 1924 general election. The letter was a fake, as were The Hitler Diaries in 1983, and stories of Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators in 1990.

But in a world of social media, news travels fast, and the more outrageous, more titillating, more gobsmacking that news, the faster it travels. As more and more of us get our news from the very social media platforms where these stories circulate, there is a real danger that such stories will begin to crowd out more mundane news from trusted media sites. The sites themselves have begun to recognise the problem, with Facebook and Google both actively seeking ways and means to stem the flow of fake news stories.

But we have a role to play too. The more we understand about how these stories originate and how they come to be circulated, the better equipped we’ll be to judge for ourselves the relative merits of the stories we encounter in our newsfeeds.

After all, to paraphrase the Irish politician John Philpot Curran: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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