The threat of misinformation: the UK takes a stance on fake news
27 Mar 2017 12:00 am by Megan Burnside
Since capturing public imagination in the wake of President Trump's election victory, the influence of fake news on political opinion has been widely discussed and debated. In January an MP-led investigation into the phenomenon was announced, just weeks after Germany revealed it too would conduct a similar inquiry ahead of its 2017 elections.
Fake news refers to the deliberate spread of misinformation, with the intent to mislead for financial or political gain. This has led to fears that the public are being fed propaganda and untruths that could impact important events and political decisions.
New research suggests that online hoaxes and propaganda may have had an impact in the US presidential election. According to a study by two US economists, fake news that favoured Donald Trump was shared 30 million times in the three months before the election - four times the amount of false stories favouring Hillary Clinton.
The online space for news
The way people access news is changing, driving concern around the credibility of reporting. Research suggests consumers are growing increasingly distrustful of traditional media outlets. Many are choosing to browse the internet and social media for news updates, despite the fact that the source of these stories is often unclear and reports can be factually inaccurate.
A Pew Research study found that in 2016, just 20 percent of U.S. adults regularly digest news from print newspapers. This is compared to nearly twice as many adults (38 percent) regularly reading news through online sources - either through news websites/apps or on social media (18 percent), with Facebook being the main port of call.
The fake news inquiry
Since Trump's rise to power, the issue of fake news has prompted countries outside of the US to investigate their own news reporting. In Europe, Germany has started to investigate the spread of fake news, and calls from politicians there have forced Facebook to turn on tools it had been developing to stop the spread of false stories.
In the UK, spearheaded by The Culture, Media & Sports Committee, the government is making moves to reduce the impact of fake news on its democratic processes. A group of influential UK MPs have launched an inquiry into the fake news – dubbed a "threat to democracy" - that is currently undermining public confidence in the media.
MPs want to investigate whether the way advertising is bought, sold and placed online has encouraged the growth of fake news and the responsibility of search engines and social media to stop the spread of misinformation through their platforms. The way that fake news affects people's understanding of the world and their trust in traditional journalism will also be examined, as will the issue of whether different demographic groups respond to made-up stories in different ways.
Launching the inquiry, Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee, said: "We will be looking into the sources of fake news, what motivates people to spread it, and how it has been used around elections and other important political debates."
Fake news is spread through a fast working, dangerous chain reaction. When an untrue story is posted online it can be circulated at an alarming rate. A journalist from a largely credible media outlet could see a fake news story, use its content in a new story, and quickly become part of the fake news problem. The UK's inquiry into fake news is a declaration of its threat to the public and that the spread of misinformation is a problem being taken seriously. Before the next general election, the inquiry will educate public sector departments, investigate the credibility of sources and move to detach propaganda from accurate news information.
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