Monday, 8 October 2018

Tackling fake facts and disinformation

Tabloid newspapers and disingenuous commentators regularly try to undermine those they oppose by accusing them of ‘spin’. I don’t have a real problem with ‘spin’ which, at its simplest, is just putting the best face on particular facts. I’m happy to declare that ‘this glass is half full’when others, just as accurately, declare that ‘the glass is half empty.’
In truth, each and every day, nearly every one of us will engage in conversations where we either don’t tell the whole truth or, perhaps worse in any moral evaluation of our actions, say something that isn’t correct. “Hello, how are you today?” “I’m fine, thank you” we respond, even when we’re not fine nor having a good day. We have all sorts of good reasons for not being totally accurate and, in 99.9% of these instances, there are no adverse consequences.
However, in an era where the internet and social media enable information to fly round the world and be seen, read and heard by millions before you’ve had time to blink, the potential impact and consequences of the assertion of fake facts and disinformation are infinitely more considerable than even just twenty years ago.
Just consider the impact that statements like “Brexit is easy and can be achieved in a day”, “Brexit will deliver an extra £50 million a day for the NHS” and “Migration will stop” had on the Referendum, even though all were demonstrably ridiculous. Just listen to the stream of false assertions made by President Trump each time he opens his mouth. It is really worrying that the majority of Russian citizens appear to believe President Putin’s assertions that Russian state authorities have had absolutely no involvement in the novichok attack which, we should not forget, have left one person dead and others seriously ill.
Although I have no problem with spin, I do have a real problem with the promotion of fake facts and disinformation. I have a serious problem with those who play fast and loose with the facts. I have always tried to base my speeches and articles on well-evidenced information. But, in this era of fake facts, I find myself increasingly having to check assertions being made.
I use the excellent House of Commons Library, independent fact-checking organisations like FULL FACT, and reputable independent policy research organisations to test dubious and misleading assertions. It is noticeable that parts of the UK broadcast media – like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 - have now invested heavily in their own fact-checking operations.
Last week, FULL FACT published a paper1 which “sets out a framework for a risk-based and proportionate response to the problems of misinformation and disinformation in the UK. The realistic goal is not to eliminate misinformation and disinformation but is to build resilience against it.” The paper suggests that we shouldn’t panic, but that we do need to recognise that “misinformation and disinformation represent real risks to open societies and we need effective responses.”
There is clear and serious public concern about these issues. So far, the UK has not proposed dangerous and illiberal measures to deal with the problems. But, it is clear that doing nothing is not an option. At the very least, our election laws need to be updated in the light of the current reality.
The FULL FACT paper provides a really helpful starting point for a public discussion about the issues and the appropriate action to take. It’s worth a read.