This really is the million dollar question, with Germany recently fining Facebook €50 million for failing to combat fake news. But what exactly is this phenomenon that is infiltrating contemporary media?
Fake news is defined as a type of journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation, spread through traditional printed press or now, more commonly, social media. Although the advent of the term “fake news” is perhaps attributed to Donald Trump, by delving into its origins we can see that this definition alludes to misinformation campaigns as being the foundation of fake news. Therefore, the use of fake news is not as modern as Trump would like us to think, with misinformation almost certainly being present since the means of communication were invented.
The first recorded use of a misinformation campaign was that of Octavian against Mark Anthony during the Final War of the Roman Republic in which the former distributed an enhanced masculine drawing of himself in order to garner military support from his citizens. Other notable examples range from Andrew Jackson falsely charging John Quincy Adams in 1828 of soliciting a Russian prostitute, to perhaps the most poignant and consequential misinformation campaign of recent history: the Nazi’s use of propaganda to discredit the Jews. Germany’s post-WW1 anti-Semitism was perpetuated and exacerbated by the spread of “fake news” by the Nazis. The hateful depiction of Jews as an “alien race” and enslavers of the economy are just some of the pre-existing stereotypes that the Nazis exploited and continued to misinform the public about. The almost universal acceptance of these views in Germany at the time is tangible evidence of the shocking and tragic consequences of propagandist fake news.
Although such a concerted and malicious misinformation campaign has not been seen since, fake news has remained a recurrent feature of print journalism, especially in the likes of tabloids which have normalised the culture of presenting rumours as factual news. Even historically reputable news outlets, such as CNN or even the BBC, have been accused of promoting fake news with extremely partisan agendas. However, more worryingly, fake news is now pervasive in the world of social media with many suggesting that the problem will grow hugely unless action is taken. Facebook and Twitter are breeding grounds for fake news due to the anonymity that such sites afford its (mis)users. Whilst investigating potential Russian interference into the 2016 Presidential election, White House Special Council, Robert Mueller, has indicated how easy it is to untraceably place misleading political adverts online or promote specific illegitimate agendas to certain groups of people due to the lack of intervention and monitoring by large internet corporations. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, certain governments are now taking direct action and have passed legislation placing the onus on internet corporations to self-police fake news, or else face hefty fines. Some would argue that fake news, as flagged up by Trump, is not worth combatting; however, there are darker variants, with terror organisations utilising this anonymity to promote an extremist agenda through misinformation about the West.
This is the crux of the issue: social media has changed the way misinformation and propaganda is spread. Anyone can write, publish and share an article without providing their sources or having any credibility as a journalist. However, it is certain that the most susceptible group to this hijacking of social media is young people, whose only source of news is often social media sites and who are dependent on technology. This dependence
is not necessarily a negative thing, however, the enslavement to our iPhones as we see today could be dangerous, with young people touching their devices, on average, 2617 times daily. According to Stanford University, fake news websites received 159 million visits during the month of the 2016 Presidential Election - this figure indicates just how mammoth an issue fake news has become. Combined with this reliance on technology, it is increasingly important that everyone - particularly those who use frequently engage with social media - has the skills to discern fact from fiction when reading the news or other media.
There is no easy way to train young people to have a wary eye due to the sheer volume of fake news websites viewed per day. Despite this, charities such as FactCheck NI are working hard at the grassroots to curtail the impacts of fake news: as well as being committed to fact-checking claims by local politicians, this charity works in the community and with schools to deliver workshops and presentations on how young people can combat fake news. In addition developing skills to identify false or deliberately misleading journalism, these workshops inform students of websites and resources to aid them in assessing the legitimacy of a news source. However, the work of organisations such as this, as always, is only able to stretch as far as their budgets will allow. Therefore, it is time for legislation to be proposed which secures funding and support for organisations who conduct such important work in the community, but also addresses the issue of internet corporations and their own responsibility in actively preventing the spread of fake news, deliberate misinformation, and misleading propaganda.
We are the Internet Generation. We are the generation of “alternative facts”. We are the generation who will be most affected by this ever growing and contentious issue. There will always be an undercurrent of misinformation in politics and journalism, but ultimately it is up to individuals to be vigilant and not succumb to the lies and falsehoods to which we are increasingly exposed and, regrettably, always will be.
Jake is a 6th Form student currently studying for his A-Levels at Methodist College, Belfast. Along with Hala Heenan and Shannon McKeown, he won the Political Studies Association Schools’ Video Competition on the topic of Fake News in 2017.