6th February 2017
Fake news has become a buzzword over the past year in politics. Its first mainstream presence was felt around the EU referendum, when websites such as Breitbart came to prominence by using unverifiable facts to twist the story. The phenomenon has grown since then, pervading the United States’ Presidential election, and now also affecting European democracy. Fake news has now, thanks to Donald Trump and his dismissal of CNN in a press conference post-election, become a tangible issue in modern society. It is a problem that does not appear to have an easy solution, and may yet have greater effect on politics in the long-term than people are currently prepared to admit.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee have this week announced that they are going to undertake an inquiry into fake news. The Committee is asking what fake news is, how it impacts public understanding of the world, and whether people of different ages feel the impact of it in different ways. These are all important questions to ask, and will hopefully help the Parliament and the Government tackle the problem head on. At the inquiry’s launch, Committee Chair Damian Collins correctly identified fake news as a “threat to democracy”, undermining the confidence and trust people placed in traditional media. The larger threat that fake news creates is that if left unchecked a generation of voters could be created, only subscribing to one world view as presented through alternative facts and unreliable sources.
Fuelling this development is the global trend in news consumption that emerged at the advent of the social media age. As people receive greater amounts of their news from personally curated and targeted feeds, there has arguably been a shift as people read only what they already agree with, or the news that best matches their values. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, having existed in traditional media in the form of left and right leaning newspapers and television, but it is one that is being exacerbated by the presence in the news industry of the echo chamber effect online. It is now all too easy to exclusively hear your own views repeated back to you, and fake news has served to aggravate this issue.
Examples of this shift to the echo chamber are large for all to see. On the political hard-left in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn reigns supreme amongst a cult-like following. Part of his appeal, or so the Canary (a left-leaning online news source) would have you believe, is his consistent ability to ‘crush’ or ‘destroy’ Theresa May, and her awful, untrustworthy Government. The problem with this is of course that polling numbers from independent organisations say otherwise, and that Corbyn is in fact the one being ‘crushed’ under May’s trusted Government. Similarly, in the alt-right of the United States, Donald Trump can do no wrong in the eyes of Breitbart, conveniently owned by his now Head Strategist, Steve Bannon. In reality, Trump is a President that lost the popular vote and whose favourability rating is unprecedentedly low for a newly elected Commander-in-Chief, but his supporters will not hear it. Fake news has created a bubble where the realities of the people inside are completely different to those outside, and trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low.
Taking this into account, it is important to look at the issue of fake news not over one election cycle, or even two, but over a generation of potential voters. Over the course of the last year, global politics invariably shifted from being a relatively predictable pendulum swing from centre-left to centre-right Governments, to one where almost anything can seemingly happen. If the fake news phenomenon keeps going at the current rate, cultural and political divisions could widen even further across society as a whole. As people gravitate to one curated news source instead of the consumption of a wide range of headlines and soundbites as is currently the case, it is likely to cause a consolidation of political opinion, and the lack of a healthy challenge to ideas. There is a danger in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s upcoming inquiry that this point is not heard, and that long-term issues with fake news are overlooked. The Government needs to take action on educating people in what sources can be trusted and how to know the real from the fake, but it should tread carefully in doing so, steering away from knee-jerk censorship. There is a fine line to walk on this issue, but one that is necessary to tread.
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