Can we stop fake news in the next 10 years?

Vian Bakir (Prof. in Political Communication and Journalism at Bangor University's School of Creative Studies & Media) is pessimistic, but urges us not to give up. Andrew McStay (Prof in Digital Life at Bangor University) is more optimistic.

Speaking recently at the CommsCymru conference on trust, Bakir gave an overview of the various solutions to fake news found in the 79 submissions to the UK Parliament’s ongoing Fake News Inquiry. (This overview of proposed solutions was written with Bangor University’s Professor of Digital Life, Andrew McStay.)

Bakir and McStay observe that the most popular solution involves focusing on media organisations to promote a pluralistic media economy so that quality news outlets can flourish; and to encourage journalists to tell the truth.

Another popular solution is to focus on education to increase people’s media and digital literacy so that they can recognise fake news.

Also popular were solutions that propose focusing on digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook. Submissions to the Fake News Inquiry urged these global behemoths to divert funds from their digital advertising revenue streams to support financially struggling news outlets; and to promote real news and downgrade fake news web sites.

Less frequently addressed among Fake News Inquiry submissions were solutions that advocate focusing on professional persuaders such as advertisers and the Public Relations (PR) industry. Nonetheless, some submissions urged advertisers to consider the health of the media landscape where Google and Facebook hold a duopoly on the digital advertising market; and to ensure that behavioural advertising systems do not incentivise fake news creation. On the PR industry, some submissions advocate regulation of political campaigning to avoid deception.

Also released  recently was a survey by Pew Research Center on The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online, that consulted more than 1,100 internet and technology experts. This was nearly split down the middle on the question: can fake news be thwarted in the next 10 years?
Cited in this report, Bakir said, “It won’t improve because of the evolving nature of technology- emergent media always catches out those who wish to control it, at least in the initial phase of emergence; online social media and search engine business models favor misinformation spreading; and well-resourced propagandists exploit this mix.”

Also cited in this report, McStay said, “Undoubtedly, fake news and weaponised information will increase in sophistication, but so will attempts to combat it. For example, the scope to analyse at the level of metadata is a promising opportunity. While it is an arms race, I do not foresee a dystopian outcome.”

Despite the challenges posed by rapid technological change, in the talk to CommsCymru, Bakir urged the many parties with a stake in combating fake news not to give up. She agrees that measures focusing on media literacy campaigns would help citizens to spot and discount fake news stories, potentially minimising their reach.  She also agrees that solutions focusing on media organisations, digital intermediaries and advertisers would help support the production of more accurate, fact-checked news stories while restricting some of the commercial conditions that allow fake news to flourish.

However, she maintains that as long as professional persuaders aided by PR companies seek to mislead and deceive, the veracity of news will always be a democratic challenge. Unfortunately, as submissions to the Fake News Inquiry that address PR indicate, this is one of the thorniest areas to address.

Believing that professional persuaders are unlikely to heed exhortations to avoid deception, multiple submissions to the inquiry urge regulation of political campaigning. However, many also argue that that any new form of censorship should be seen as a proportionate measure of last resort, so as to protect freedom of political speech.  This is an important point. As Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index shows, media freedom is increasingly fragile in democracies. This includes the UK, which occupies a position of 40 in the 2017 Press Freedom Index. This is two points lower than the previous year given the enactment of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, that adopts the most extreme surveillance legislation in British history, with insufficient protections for whistleblowers, journalists and their sources, thereby threatening investigative journalism.

For more on Fake News, see: Bakir’s talk to Cymru Comms on Slideshare; Bakir and McStay’s overview of the Fake News Inquiry submissions in 3D; and reportage in Adweek.

Vian Bakir also spoke at CommsCymru in Cardiff on Thurs 26 October 2017

Publication date: 30 October 2017