Fake news - the real threat of this digital age

councillor Steve Lane of Werrington First Independents
councillor Steve Lane of Werrington First Independents

Headlines of ‘Fake News’ are nothing new, but changes in the past few years means that we now face particular challenges, with more of us reading of news on issues that affect our neighbourhoods, countries and immediate world through social media.

Putting to one side reports about Russian disinformation campaigns, the issue that concerns me (writes columnist Steve Lane, Werrington First Independent Councillor) at the moment is the role that disinformation plays and now poses as a threat to local democracy. Its relevance is becoming not just a problem for government, but one for all of us in this age of digital communications.

It is important that voters are able to choose an electoral candidate that will best represent their political views, and they need accurate information so they can avoid making the wrong choice. Fifty years ago, the only information was had by attending political hustings, or from the TV, radio and newspapers. Nowadays, it is more commonplace for social media to be that source as it becomes awash with content in the run up to election day. Famously, communication experts have suggested the results achieved by Momentum for Jeremy Corbyn is a prime example of how to create a successful campaign because of the spontaneity it can harvest. But we might ask, how much did the campaign meet the expectations of its readers, or did it just influence by tactical ambiguity and ploy?

These days, it is becoming harder to determine which news and social media reports are genuine.

Because of my wariness, I am suspicious of all posts and will now participate only in discussions with contacts that I know and trust.

I will remain silent on headlines that are too sensational, even if there have been a million or more viewings purported to have been made, instead I just leave it to the trolls. It will not matter if the subject is something of great interest to me, such as Brexit– I simply turn the page.

Obviously, I am writing today on a menace that is far bigger than we can handle at this level. The threat is from the manipulation of truth and facts for political gain, and it undermines all that we value.

Already being discussed at government levels, I just hope they see that a good place to start would be with the powers of Ofcom, which sets and enforces the standards for broadcasting media, including rules with regard to the accuracy of facts. I am pleased with the news from an interim report by a Commons committee that recently suggested the same standards should be a basis for controlling social and other online media.

However, I will add that it should also be applied to the production of election material, whether that be online, in social media or print. It’s amazing to see the growth in this area of disinformation, and I describe it as such because it is deliberately being dishonest. I say this because of personal experiences when I have witnessed political activists using tactics that I consider to be akin to disinformation.

My suspicion of this becomes more relevant when understanding that some have a tendency to make statements that are rather ambiguous. Cleverly, they will deliberately stretch the truth in order to say what the reader wants to believe. I have seen published photos of people standing beside the result of someone else’s work, along with a few words of leading ambiguity. I know there is no territorial right in a public space, but how can a reader determine the level of involvement this character has with a story.

We know there are rules and regulations for brand advertising requiring honesty and factual proof, so why can’t the same be applied to political campaigns? The public needs protection from being scammed or defrauded by devious means before we ever have to rue the day that a government is elected on the strength of mistruth. A good start to preventing that is to clamp down on ‘Fake News’.