and finally Rapid response unit will limp along

Truth unit won’t keep up, says Chris Proctor


he government announced last month that it was going to set up a ‘rapid response unit’ to deal with fake news. This would be heartening except technology is a greased gazelle

and regulation is a lame elephant. Catching up is going to be tricky. On the positive side, it could mean we Brits will be

hearing less from the US president, who, when not railing against it, dispenses fake news like it’s going out of fashion. Despite all the competition, one of my favourite Trump remarks is still: “I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it.” That was on the record. How much credence do

you give to a quote from someone who has already said they make stuff up? And, marvellously, even this statement is false as he patently hasn’t been making this happen forever – there was a golden age of pre-Trump. It was even fake news when Collins made ‘fake

news’ its word of the year as – and I concede I’m no mathematician – it is approximately two words. Back to the government initiative. It’s the idea of a ‘rapid response social media capability’ that astounds me. I mean, if it takes from July 2009 until July 2016 to come up with a report on the Iraq war, how long is it going to take to decide whether it is fake news to suggest that the UK will raise £350 million a week to fund the NHS if it supports Brexit? This should rightly be investigated as the new unit

is supposed to probe anything to do with national security, which the Remainers claimed would come under threat if we left the EU. On the other hand, that may be false news, too. It’s not easy, is it? Because, before it can do anything,

the elephant lumbering after the fake news antelope will need to define what ‘truth’ is. This can be tricky. Philosophers, from Aristotle to Julian Assange via Keats, have been debating its nature for thousands of years. Is it true that Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter, as people think? Or was Margaret Thatcher being truthful when she said he was a terrorist? Did the UK economy truthfully grow by 0.6 per cent in the final quarter of 2017? Is Pamela Anderson, 50, really smitten with footballer Adil Rami, 32?

And, given that it is a basic tenet of our justice

system that you are innocent until you’re proven guilty, wouldn’t anyone accused of publishing fake news be granted an appeal? There is evidence that some judicial appeals are less than ‘rapid’; for example, the Weston brothers began arguing about the proceeds of the family printing firm in 1963, finally settling the matter 43 years later when only one of them was still alive. A master of understatement, the survivor, Glyn, was quoted as saying: ‘It has dragged on a bit.’ My point, as far as I remember it, was that speed

to an elephant is not the same as alacrity to an antelope. And frankly you need to be sharpish to keep up with social media. If it takes you two seconds to post something online, you either live in a deep crevice halfway up Snowdon or you should change provider. And what will the anti fake news unit be expected to do at the speed of light? Only ‘combat disinformation by state actors and others’ and ‘deter the actions of those creating fake news’. Should be easy enough! I know politicians and

governments are reluctant to admit that they are not almighty know-alls. But in this case, they should concede they’re onto a loser. Quite apart from anything else, they themselves regularly seek to falsify or at least ‘massage’ the truth. Remember Jo Moore? It’s false news to pretend that you can

control false news. UK governments have been trying to do this since 1665 when the London Gazette was set up to combat ‘reckless’ publication of baseless rumours that could endanger national security. They’ve not done particularly well in the intervening 353 years, have they? The only long-term answer – as the NUJ has

pointed out – is educating people to recognise false news. If we cannot solve the problem, we need to be equipped to deal with it. Schools, colleges and universities need to reach out to teach us all how to build the critical skills we need to function as a democratic society. It’s more practical than training elephants

to sprint.

26 | theJournalist

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