Tackling the Problem of Fake News

08 June 2017

It is widely believed that fake news has had an impact on some of the most controversial recent political decisions.

With the supposed effect on both Brexit and Trump, it is unsurprising that there are concerns about its potential influence on the UK General Election.

What is fake news?

Fake news is information that is not true but is published under the guise of being authentic news. Fake news stories generally fall into two categories: deliberately false stories; and stories that may have some truth to them but are not completely accurate.

The concern that fake news might affect the UK General Election has been raised by Damien Collins, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (which launched an inquiry into fake news in January). Mr Collins has warned that fake news could pose a threat to “the integrity of democracy” – using the example of the recent US election in which the top 20 fake news stories were 'shared' more than the top 20 most shared true stories. It seems Collins' concerns are felt by the British public – most British voters are concerned that fake news could influence the election and 21% of those polled admitted that fake news could influence their vote.

The phenomenon

But why has fake news become such a phenomenon when the tactic of spreading biased or misleading information for political gain is nothing new? It is propaganda - a tool which has been used in politics for years. The answer is simple: the internet. Social media provides a platform for the free, and largely unregulated, widespread dissemination of fake news stories. Further still, it enables content creators to generate revenue from advertising which is arguably the largest motivator for its distribution.

The fix?

So what is being done to tackle the problem? Facebook has implemented new measures to reduce its spread of fake news. The company has tweaked its algorithms to reduce the amount of false information users see on their news feeds and to track down and suspend fake accounts. It has also produced guidance for users on spotting fake news. This guidance is now displayed on Facebook and has also been published in national newspapers.

Similarly, Google announced last month that it was rolling out its “Fact Check” tag (previously only available in Google News) to its search results. This works by using an algorithm to judge whether sites are authoritative rather than fact checking the stories themselves. Information such as: the claim that is being made by a particular page or site; who is making the claim; and the truthfulness of that particular claim is displayed in a small snippet below the search result.

Both companies are also part-funding an initiative run by Full Fact and First Draft, two fact-checking organisations, to protect the UK General Election from fake news. As part of the initiative, professional fact checkers, economists and statisticians, assisted by software, work to identify and alert news desks in the mainstream media of fake news stories in circulation so that they can be discredited.

The end of the story?

In Germany, calls have been made for heavy fines to be levied against social media networks when they fail to police false reports, with some publishers believing that online platforms are ultimately responsible for what is published on them. Other campaigners have taken a less draconian stance arguing that social media platforms should instead be required to share data about online trends and habits to enable researchers to understand how false information is spread online and therefore identify solutions.

So what is the likely impact on the UK Election? Will Moy, a director at Full Fact, told the Press Gazette that “it’s more a case that somebody is wrong on the internet than fake news is in anyway systematically distorting the election”. He was careful to stress that it was still “early days” but, for the moment, it seems the biggest problem for the election on 8 June will be fake views, not fake news. Whether the steps being taken to tackle fake news are enough to effectively combat the problem and appease campaigners beyond the UK General Election remains to be seen. 

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