Select Committee urges action against ‘fake news’
Categories: Latest News
Wednesday August 08 2018
The House of Commons Select Committee has published the interim report on the ‘fake news’ inquiry, an investigation that sought to explore, analyse and understand the extent and impact of the phenomenon of global disinformation.
Having collected evidence from a plethora of individuals and organisations (including MEND) concerned with the issue of ‘fake news’, the Select Committee rightfully claims that the Government should “set and enforce content standards for television and radio broadcasters”, including implementing a system of “rules relating to accuracy and impartiality”. These recommendations add to the further need of creating technological tools to ascertain “the level of verification of a site” – that is, the reliability of the source of information – as well as more clarity in the terminology. Indeed, considering that the term ‘fake news’ has now assumed a variety of meanings, the report concludes that the use of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ would set the basis for added clarity in the much needed formulation of specific guidelines to tackle the issue.
‘Fake news’ (a term which entered the mainstream in 2016) denotes a variety of trends that, as evidenced in the report, have exploded through an increased use of social media and consequent decline in the use of verifiable and traditional sources of information. Indeed, there are at least six different strands of ‘fake news’, which range from the blatant “fabricated” content (where the content is completely false), to content which is “misleading” (where opinions are presented as facts) or “manipulated” (for example a headline that is made more sensationalist). Regardless of the type of ‘fake news’ people encounter, the consequences of this phenomenon are indeed dramatic.
Over the past few years, increasing attention has been devoted to the issue, particularly since the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US showed the most sinister and manipulative effects of ‘fake news’.
Indeed, the report points at the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a textbook example of “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and the prejudices of people, in order to alter their voting plans.” The company, which was founded in 2012 and for which Steve Bannon served as Vice President, was instrumental in shifting voting patterns in favour of Donald Trump through targeted campaigns of disinformation, which had been made possible through the psychological profiling of millions of Facebook users.
A similar strategy might have been deployed during the Brexit campaign as well, which saw pro-Leave voters obtain a surprising majority in the June 2016 vote. It is now confirmed that the Canadian digital advertising web and software development company, Aggregate IQ (AIQ), was paid an excess of £3.5 million by the Vote Leave faction to collect data on UK voters through platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn. While an investigation into the way AIQ used the data is underway, it is suspected that the information gathered was then used by pro-Leave factions to target specific individuals with ad hoc ads and (fake) news.
Beyond these issues, which as the Select Committee admits are “complex, global issues, which cannot easily be tackled by blunt, reactive and outmoded legislative instruments”, the problem of ‘fake news’ is a particularly sensitive one for the Muslim community, which has been the direct target of increasing Islamophobic attacks fuelled by fabricated, misleading and manipulated stories aimed at portraying Islam and Muslims as a danger to Western societies.
In MEND’s submission to the Select Committee, we have outlined just some of the most recent and shocking examples of ‘fake news’ which have found their way into mainstream national press. For example, in November 2015 – just 10 days after the Bataclan terrorist attack – The Sun published a front-page story with the misleading and inflammatory headline ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis. The Sun purposely manipulated the survey, and the very agency which ran it, Survation, later released a statement in which it declared that it did not “support or endorse the way in which the poll’s findings have been interpreted.”
Another example, dated August 2017, concerns the story published by The Times and headlined “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. The article made a number of misleading statements and provided an inaccurate account of the situation. For example, the article falsely claimed that the child was fostered by a family who “don’t speak English”, while the London Borough of Tower Hamlets stated that the child was fostered by an “English-speaking family of mixed race in this temporary placement”. Once again, the inflammatory and divisive language was aimed at influencing the perception that the British public has of British Muslims and the way the conduct their lives in Britain.
These are just some of the many examples of purposely distorted stories that seek to spread false information for political benefits. In fact, The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) singled out tabloids such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, for being “responsible for most of the offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology” in a report that scrutinised the wrongdoings of European press. Echoing that position, The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), also highlighted the disturbing journalism of the Sun and the Daily Mail, arguing: “The two right wing tabloids in our sample, the Daily Mail and Sun, were unlike anything else in our study… what really differentiated these two titles was their aggressive editorialising around threat themes, and in particular how they presented refugee and migrants as a burden on Britain’s welfare state. Both papers also featured humanitarian themes at a much lower level than any other newspapers in our study. Overall, this meant that the Sun and the Daily Mail exhibited both a hostility, and a lack of empathy with refugees and migrants that was unique.”
In addition, it is worth remembering that the incessant media campaign against Muslims has been the subject of much research, including a large-scale study conducted by Paul Baker, Costas Gabrielatos, and Tony McEnery, which has demonstrated that there are 21 negative references to Muslims within British media output for every single neutral or positive reference.
Furthermore, and signalling the great concern around the issue, a recent report released by the law firm Carter-Ruck sheds further light onto the dimension of ‘fake news’. Benefiting from the collaboration of experts and pioneers in the field, the report outlines some of the key challenges, including, for example, the fact that up to a quarter of the European population now gets its news exclusively from internet platforms; that no less than 150,000 fake accounts on social media (bots) operated in Britain during the EU referendum campaign; that today 13% of Twitter accounts are fake; and that there are strong financial incentives in spreading fake news, with emotional stories, however false, encouraging users to ‘click through’, and thus monetising the viewing of a page.
Considering recent global trends, from Trump, to Brexit, to the resurgence of far-right ideologies, it is evident that ‘fake news’ will continue to be a central issue for our democracies, at least until national legislations and international agreements catch up with so far under-regulated technological advancements.
As such, while the report prepared by the Select Committee is an important step to bring about a coordinated response to tackle the issue of ‘fake news’, other steps can and should be taken promptly on issues that are immediately resolvable.
For example, MEND has long campaigned for a full implementation of the recommendations included in the Leveson Inquiry, which would make British press fair and accountable. As we wrote in our submission into ‘fake news’, the Leveson Inquiry “directly addressed the issues surrounding ‘fake news’, including its prominence in established traditional media outlets, and the development of online outlets specialising in ‘fake news’. In particular, the inquiry highlighted the inadequacies of existing self-regulation practices of traditional media that has led to serious media inaccuracies that are frequently published without adequate correction”.
As such, the Government’s refusal to endorse Leveson’s recommendations remains a cause for great concern amongst British Muslims and broader society. Ensuring the implementation of legal mechanisms that can effectively hold the press to account is a key objective, and arguably a much longed-for step, towards tackling the broader issue of ‘fake news’ and preserving our democracies.
You can read MEND’s full submission to the Select Committee Inquiry into ‘fake news’ here.