Concerns about ‘fake news’ have prompted the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport to launch an inquiry into its impact. The Select Committee has described the issue in terms of the “growing phenomenon of widespread dissemination, through social media and the internet, and acceptance as fact of stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy”.
There is nothing new about allegations of inaccuracy, bias or unfairness in media reporting. Public trust in traditional media has been in long term decline - as our biennial research shows. Tabloid journalists have languished in the bottom three of the ‘least trusted profession’ league tables alongside cabinet ministers and estate agents. Nonetheless, a free and independent press is also fundamental to political accountability and integrity – indeed, the same research also showed that the public felt that journalists were more likely to uncover wrongdoing than public authorities.
The new media were initially hailed as bringing more direct forms of communication, by-passing agendas or alleged bias of print or broadcast sources and it is clear that more and more people are now relying upon the internet and social media as their main (sometimes sole) source of news - and they certainly deliver information faster and more precisely targeted. But they also do the same with ‘misinformation’.
‘Fake news’ is troubling for several reasons. A central concern is that if you cannot trust the truthfulness of some ‘facts’, you start losing trust in all ‘facts’. Widespread fake news about political ‘facts’, could quickly lead the public to see more and more aspects of politics in a false light and would lead to still greater mistrust of the public sphere. Democracy is ultimately about choices, but choices need to be informed and the information needs to be trustworthy.
The involvement of a politician or official in actively or negligently issuing or promoting untruthful or factually inaccurate information is obviously not in line with the Nolan principle of ‘Honesty’. But there are wider concerns which could have a substantial and negative impact on public perceptions.
Public attitudes towards politicians and political institutions are already disturbingly low. Although far from perfect, there are specific mechanisms and cultural traditions within the traditional print and broadcast media that aim to deter and counter untrue or inaccurate material.
By contrast, no such mechanisms have yet been developed for social media and content is increasingly profiled to each recipient. This means that there are neither checks on accuracy, nor even any easy means of knowing exactly what has been stated to whom. Cumulatively, it will not be possible to place reliance upon truthfulness or otherwise, and fake news will reinforce existing prejudices.
If ‘fake news’ is tolerated and becomes commonplace, there would be grave consequences for public attitudes, democratic processes and for the conduct of public life. The risks increase with the growth in the use of social media, but the associated problems would not be confined to such material. Without reassurance that the false and the genuine are being distinguished, there is a real risk of “contamination” across all sources - with public trust and confidence in public life declining further still, whatever the origin of the information or its channel of communication. As the problem gets worse, mere allegations will undermine the credibility of facts which actually are accurate.
There are no easy answers when it comes to online content. We cannot know the extent of ‘fake news’ or the likelihood that it will become widespread. But our Committee’s focus is on the fabric of public life and this issue goes to the heart of how public life is seen to be conducted. We all need to be able to rely with confidence on material which indicates whether to not politicians and officials are behaving properly.
We have therefore welcomed the Select Committee’s inquiry and have submitted evidence outlining our concerns. We hope that its inquiry will point to some effective ways forward.