Fake News is in the news, everywhere you look. And that is a very good thing. There is a groundswell of public opinion: suddenly people care that we are being bombarded with untruths, alternative facts, every day.
I was a journalist for 26 years, mostly with the BBC and Reuters, and I still think and talk about journalism every working day. I care about journalism and think it is important.
I have always thought that without journalism and news there is only gossip. Information would be passed by word of mouth only (or indeed on social media today) without any checking or balance.
Fake news is different. Worse. A deliberate attempt to mislead and misinform for some purpose, usually commercial or political. We appear to have seen an explosion in fake news for profit or clicks that might lead to profit; and also fake news for political and geopolitical purposes. Sometimes even just for mischief. But now we are seeing the backlash, an outcry. Hoorah! Thank goodness.
Fake News: reminding us traditional, trustworthy news is important
At the same time, the phrase ‘alternative facts’ has, in the last couple of months, entered the lexicon as a euphemism for lies.
It reminds me of a similar public awakening that came with the use of the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ in the 1986 Australian Spycatcher trial.
It isn’t until something comes under real threat that we all realise how much we value it. Suddenly, we are all remembering or learning why mainstream, traditional, trustworthy news is important.
Fake News: the turning of the tide
What is my evidence for this awakening, the turning of the tide? I offer these examples although I am sure there are more.
- Apple’s CEO Tim Cook interviewed by the Telegraph last week said he wanted to see governments do something to tackle the problem of fake news, which he said is ‘killing people’s minds’. But he also indicated it was something Apple was looking at: “All of us technology companies need to create some tools that help diminish the volume of fake news” he is quoted as saying.
- Channel 4 broadcast a pilot of a very funny panel comedy show called The Fake News Show. (It is available to watch for the next month). In fact, this was part of Channel 4’s Fake News week, which has included segments on ‘fake news’ in the real news.
- Huffington Post has just published a long article based on an interview with Channel 4’s veteran news presenter Jon Snow. The headline notes that despite the fact that this is the era of Donald Trump and fake news, Snow’s view is that ‘This is Journalism’s Golden Age’. It’s an interesting perspective but what struck me is, if it wasn’t for the fake news phenomena, this would never have made a story never mind a headline. The antidote to fake news is quality journalism and that is being talked about too.
- I was also delighted and surprised by a BBC News story pointing out that the surge in interest in politics has been very, very good for news organisations. Journalist Amol Rajan, the BBC’s Media Editor writes ‘The evidence is emphatic: Trump has given many news organisations the sustainable commercial future they so desperately crave.’ He notes that in the first three weeks after Trump was elected US President, the New York Times sold 132,000 digital subscriptions. That is a lot. They now have over three million subscribers. Apparently, subscriptions to the Spectator and New Statesman are also up. Meanwhile, Private Eye has hit its highest circulation figures in history.
- Over the weekend the Independent among others reported NATO being a bit more public about its concerns about ‘fake news’ spread by Russian-backed news websites. The two most often cited are Sputnik and RT. NATO claims to have documented 32 ‘myths’ that have either originated or been spread by these organisations. In some ways it is frightening that formerly cautious diplomatic organisations are now speaking out but it has to be a good thing.
Fake News is a threat. It’s important that we care about it. And hopefully, some of that concern will convert into dollars, pounds or euros spent supporting good quality journalism.
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