True or false? W

Raymond Snoddy looks at the state of fake news and the fight against it

hen the New York Times reported that President Trump had tried to fire Russia-links special investigator Robert Mueller, citing multiple sources, the response was both immediate and predictable.

“Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake

story, ” Trump said. The American president has spent his first year in office

giving enormous prominence to the concept of “fake news”, using it to attack anything he doesn’t like. Around the world, leaders of repressive governments from

Syria and Russia to China and Venezuela have all reached for the convenient term to denounce facts or views they disapprove of. The good news is that the deployment of “fake news” abuse

has been so overused by President Trump when often the news has been manifestly true that the term has been devalued and may soon be in decline outside stand-up comedy routines. “The ironic twist is that Trump has been basically deflecting

criticism by accusing news organisations of fake news when it so obviously isn’t that he has undermined the credibility of fake news,” says Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors. Richard Sambrook, former director of BBC News and now professor of journalism at Cardiff University, believes that the term fake news has been rendered “meaningless” by overuse, and not just by President Trump. He believes misinformation or disinformation more

accurately describes a phenomenon that media organisations and society will have to continue dealing with it for a long time to come.

Things are better than a year ago because the problem is better understood and many initiatives have been launched by governments, publishers and television companies, including greater use of fact-checking. It would be wrong, however, Sambrook warns, to believe

that it is all about to be sorted out. In some ways it could even get worse because the technology now exists to combine video and audio to make people appear convincingly to say things they never said. News organisations increasingly realise that they should be more open and clear with the public on the difference between opinion and evidence-based reporting. Sambrook’s hope is that, as a result, trust in the professional media will rise and that “gradually people will come round to recognising what they can trust and can’t

16 | theJournalist

trust, but it is going to take a long time”. The trouble with fake news is that when the term is not

entirely meaningless, it is many different things. Apart from a general term of abuse in the mouths of

politicians there is the genuine fake news of the “Pope backs Trump” variety made up by Macedonian teenagers to make money from Facebook advertising. Then there is what Ivor Gabor, professor of political

journalism at Sussex University and former BBC investigative journalist, calls “extreme spin” – something that, unlike the others, has always been with us in the UK national press. Despite being a misused term, fake news, he believes,

carries serious implications for journalism. “Once the notion of fake news is implanted, it becomes almost the kneejerk response to any journalistic endeavour. That is quite undermining: it’s not just politicians – they would say that, wouldn’t they – but also the general public,” Gabor argues.

There are modest signs that the high water mark has been reached for at least some variants of the fake news concept. In the US, in at least partial response to Trump, there have

Arena seeks answers

Anne Applebaum was so concerned about fake news, or disinformation as she prefers to call it, that she co-founded the Arena institute to tackle it. Applebaum, a visiting

professor at the London School of Economics where Arena is based, is interested in people making up fake news for money but concentrates on “people running political campaigns designed to fool people”. The specialist in recent

Eastern Europe history points to constant attacks on official databases in the Baltic states and cites the planting of false stories

such as NATO troops raping Lithuanian women. Journalists, she believes,

are at the centre of tackling this, first by understanding and writing about issues then moving towards solutions. “Some of our projects

look at ways in which we can design better journalism to reach people who are particularly prone to conspiracy theories,” Applebaum explains.

The crux of the matter

is that there has never been a greater need for professional journalists to verify information while economic models to pay for them are under increasing pressure. “We talk about it as a

problem in Britain but it’s a crisis in smaller countries where the advertising market has disappeared and it’s very difficult to do good journalism,” says Applebaum. For Applebaum, reasons

for optimism include increasing action against invented stories spread by tech companies, including those emanating from Russia.


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