I HAVE been asked to sit on a panel in York about the rise of fake news. So here are a few thoughts ahead of tonight.
It might seem new, but fake news has been around for a while. In 1986, the Sun published the infamous headline: Freddie Star Ate My Hamster – a story as bizarre as it was untrue.
Here is a more serious example from that newspaper. I have been dipping into David Randall’s book The Universal Journalist. He recalls the days when the then editor of the Sun decreed against all scientific evidence that Aids was a disease limited only to drug addicts and homosexuals.
This approach reached its lowest point in the headline: “Straight Sex Cannot Give You Aids – Official.” Aids was also dismissed as the “hoax of the century”.
Eventually the tabloid backed down and printed a tiny apology on page 28.
Not fake news so much as stubbornly biased news. As for the hamster, that was fake news. Fake fur, if you like.
Here are two recent examples from the Daily Express, which campaigned for Brexit with a loud voice and hasn’t stopped shouting yet.
Twice in the past week, the crusty tabloid has been forced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation to flag up corrections about front-page Brexit stories. One story concerned a report that 98 per cent of people who took part in a survey said that the decision to leave the EU should be enacted immediately. The 98 per cent figure had come from a smallish survey of Express readers, rather than the public at large – which was the impression misleadingly given.
The other story went under the headline: “EU exit boosts house prices.” This was ruled inaccurate as the figures used were from a period before the referendum vote – whereas the Express made it appear that the figures were from after the vote.
Fake news or fiddled facts? Take your pick. As for all those mad Express stories about the weather, perhaps the Met Office has something to say about that.
Fake news has always been with us, then, but sadly there is just much more of it around now. In recognition of this, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016 – annoying pedants everywhere, who pointed out that was in fact two words.
One or two words, that coinage does sum up an age where facts are optional at best and where Donald Trump can berate a CNN reporter at a press conference by idiotically chanting: “You are fake news”.
Kellyanne Conway, who massages the truth for Trump, then introduced us to “alternative facts”. You have your facts, we have ours. Suddenly facts aren’t blameless sentries of truth; just something somebody believes.
Many people have pointed out that ‘alternative facts’ has an Orwellian feel, as indeed it does, and sales of 1984 are reported to have risen sharply. Perhaps we should all read that book again.
False information has always been with us, then. What’s changed is that the internet allows falsehoods to spread fast and wide. A lie can be amplified much more quickly now than in the past.
An old quote attributed to many people goes like this: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
Nowadays that lie moves so fast the truth hasn’t even learned to do up its laces yet.
You can’t consider the rise of fake news without addressing the Trump problem. During his election campaign, Donald Trump cleverly laid into the media – the “mainstream media” and always said with a sneer – while at the same time using the same mainstream media to report his every stutter and stumble.
As president, he constantly disparages the media – preferring to communicate through Twitter. This could be because he has a short attention span. But mainly it’s because that way he doesn’t have to answer awkward questions. Trump sees questions as an impertinence. He has his truth and he doesn’t want newspapers or nosey TV reporters offering any other version.
Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s White House advisers, even went as far as to say that the “humiliated” media should “keep its mouth shut”. And his boss repeatedly calls journalists “among the most dishonest people on earth”.
Takes one to know one, perhaps.
Yet the mainstream media is widely distrusted in the US – and that has left a poisoned void in which fake news can propagate. If you dislike the real news, you can just make up your own.
Many blatant lies were told on Trump’s behalf during his election campaign; he spun a good few himself; and one or two untruths were even told about him.
This superfluity of false information is a big worry. How can we have a meaningful conversation about anything if there are no true facts to hand? How can we see any sort of truth through this thicket of lies?
The internet is like a big, messy playground, full of energy and possibility. It is unruly and wild and has the potential to do harm or good. Without the internet, fake news would not spread so far or so fast. But it is spreading far and fast. And the worry is that soon we won’t have any idea what’s what.
One of the clear dangers is that if people take their news from social media, perhaps on Facebook, then fake news looks the same as everything else on Facebook. And this lends it spurious validity.
Perhaps in time the internet will sort this out by introducing better fact-checking. Human fact-checking, instead of algorithms. Or by allowing users to flag up fake news, something which is being experimented with now.
But perhaps in the end we need be smart enough not to believe everything we read. If something looks suspicious or too good or bad to be true, then perhaps it is. Before automatically believing what you read check it out on the BBC website. Or any other reputable news organisation.
Sometimes it’s a case of “reader beware”.
There is a discussion on this theme tonight at 7pm the Priory Centre in York. Have They Got News For You? The future of journalism in a post-truth world will be chaired by Marcus Romer. The panellists include journalist, producer and lecturer Wendy Homewood, Jack Gevertz, O2 2015 Yorkshire Young Journalist of the Year, and myself.