Britain takes aim at fake news bubble

Parliamentary probe launched to examine the issue, which is 'a threat to democracy'

LONDON • The rise of fake news has been a hot topic in Britain this year, with lawmakers leading a probe into the phenomenon and warning it is "a threat to democracy".

As well as the inquiry, British journalism schools have begun to adapt their teaching, while national broadcaster BBC has issued prevention guidelines for children in an attempt to reverse the trend.

Mr Damian Collins, head of the parliamentary probe, said fake news undermined trust in the media in general, with the explosion of social media making political issues particularly sensitive.

Fake news represents "a threat to democracy... if people are deliberately using it on social media platforms to spread misinformation around an election", he said.

The panel is considering whether fake news spreaders could be blocked or closed down, or genuine news outlets be given a special verification mark.

Mr Collins urged tech companies to help tackle the problem on social media platforms as they had done in combating piracy, illegal content sharing, cyber bullying and hate speech.

But the tech giants had moved only "in response to pressure, and reluctantly", the MP warned.

BBC television's Newsround, a news bulletin for children, explained fake news to youngsters in February.

The programme created Think Before You Click clips informing youngsters of how to spot false stories, using invented tales of yellow pandas, robot head-teachers and unidentified flying objects.

Fake news is not a 21st-century phenomenon, but what is new is its scale, said Dr James Rodgers, senior lecturer in journalism at the City University of London.

"Before, being published relied on getting into an established medium. It no longer does," he said.

City University of London runs some of Britain's most prestigious journalism courses.

The former BBC and Reuters journalist said three main factors seem to create the conditions for a fake news surge.

"These spikes seem to occur at times of political uncertainty, armed conflict and new technology. We have all of those three at the moment," he said.

In Britain, there is a fine tradition of humorous spoof news. It reaches a crescendo on April 1, April Fools' Day, when newspapers and broadcasters traditionally try to catch their audience out.

The pick of last Saturday's crop included Prince Harry's quickie wedding in Las Vegas and a new fashion range launched by former finance minister George Osborne.

A Daily Express piece saying that the European Union was to demand the recall of every British number plate following Brexit provoked anger among readers, with one commenter writing "the EU can shove their dumb number plates where the sun don't shine".

A fake news producer explained that as demonstrated by the Express report, the key to getting stories to go viral was to appeal to people's emotions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Britain takes aim at fake news bubble'. Print Edition | Subscribe