The Media Answers to Us … or do we answer to them …?

In an article entitled Mass Media Influence on Society, Rayuso (their first name and gender are currently a mystery to me) argues that the media in the US is dominated by just five companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney and News Corp). Together, they own 95% of all mass media, including theme parks, film studios, television and radio networks and programming, video news, sports entertainment, telecommunications, wireless phones, video games software, electronic media and music companies. Whilst historically there was more diversity in companies, they have now merged to form a powerful few which have the power to shape opinions and beliefs.

People buy things often after being influenced by thousands of advertisements, which affect their purchasing decisions. The definition of what is acceptable by society is dictated or reinforced by the media. This power can be used for good, for example encouraging children to play sport. However, it can also be used for bad. The documentary Super Size Me describes how companies like McDonald’s have been sued by plaintiffs claiming it was the fault of their liminal and subliminal advertising that “forced” them to purchase the product. The Barbie and Ken dolls of the 1950s are sometimes cited as the main cause for the obsession in modern-day society for women to be skinny and men to be buff. After the attacks of 9/11, the media gave extensive coverage of the event and exposed Osama Bin Laden’s guilt for the attack – information they were told by the authorities. This shaped public opinion towards supporting the war on terrorism and, later, the war on Iraq. A main concern is that, due to their power to drive public opinion, media outlets giving out wrong information could cause public opinion to support a defective cause.the 1950s, when cinema, radio and TV began to be the primary or the only source of information for an ever increasing percentage of the population, they began to be considered as central instruments of information and control.

Mass media play a significant role in shaping public perceptions, both through the information they dispense and through the interpretations they deliver. They also play a large role in shaping modern culture, by selecting and portraying a particular set of beliefs, values, and traditions (an entire way of life), as reality. Mass media also play a crucial role in the spread of civil unrest, such as anti-government demonstrations, riots, and general strikes.

Media bias is the (actual or perceived) bias of journalists and producers in the selection and stories; what’s reported, how they’re reported, and what’s prioritised and considered important. An overwhelming majority of independent analysis seems to lean towards it existing to a lesser or greater degree.

There are, of course, limitations to media neutrality, which include;

  • The inability of journalists to report all available stories and facts.

  • The requirement that selected facts be linked into a coherent narrative.

  • Government intervention. In some countries, such as North Korea and Burma, the intervention is a lot more absolute and overt. In the UK, government intervention is more subtle, with government ministers and civil servants wining and dining media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay brothers and, previously, Rupert Maxwell.

  • The ownership of the news source does have a bearing on the editorial direction. No editor is naive enough to at not consider their owners’ views. What editor wouldn’t want to follow the rules laid down by senior management? There’ll always be some that don’t, but they’re the outsiders.

  • Concentration of media ownership in a few hands. The Media Reform Coalition published a report in 2014 regarding the changing landscape of media ownership. Although the state of the UK’s media has been under close examination since the start of the Leveson Inquiry in 2011, media ownership has somehow managed to escape from scrutiny. It is the elephant in the room: obvious to all but never discussed.

  • Selection of staff. Again, staff will be elected more often than not on the basis that they have broadly similar views to the editor and their key lieutenants.

  • Preferences (perceived or actual) of an intended audience. People will buy a paper that reflects their own biases and assumptions – the Daily Mail for an anti-EU, lower-immigration stance, or the Guardian for a left-wing, pro-EU view. Newspapers will then play to these perceptions and reinforce the news through the prism of their own bias; spiking stories that don’t agree with them or their owners, pushing positive stories on the front page, putting correction and clarifications as far back in the paper as possible, and so on.

  • Pressure from advertisers. Advertising revenue is an attractive way of increasing revenue into the paper, and it means that the paper often becomes reliant on this source of income. It helps increase management pay packets, dividends to shareholders, and the balance sheet – and, as a result, increases reliance on significant spenders. Pressure groups have begun pressuring advertisers to withdraw advertising from papers who have taken particular stances. So far, this has met with mixed success, but it’s an interesting tactic nonetheless.

“The Elephant in the Room”, by George Lakoff, charts the worrying trends of an increased concentration of UK media into fewer and fewer hands. It argues for media plurality as being crucial for a healthy democracy, as well as vital for ensuring the public has access to a wide range of news and views from independent providers. We couldn’t agree more.

Statistics gathered about the spread of local media are concerning. A quarter of the country isn’t served by a local paper, while 35% is covered by only a single one. Since March 2011, a total of 141 local papers have shut down, and in 224 areas (55% of the total), the same 4 companies have majority ownership of the local market.

The ownership of national newspapers remains concentrated in just a few large companies: 70% of the UK national market is controlled by just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust, and Trinity Mirror), with Rupert Murdoch’s News UK holding a full third of the entire market share.

55% of national radio listenership is held by the BBC’s channels; however news content for almost all commercial radio stations is provided by Sky News, giving them 43% of the national audience share for radio.

The collapse of the BSkyB deal in 2011, following the revelations of the phone hacking scandal, was a small victory for plurality in the UK. However, this spectre has once again raised its head, and this time, it looks likely to succeed. News Corporation still holds 39% in BSkyB, effectively counting as joint-leadership between the two companies, and very soon it will inevitably gain majority or total control. This will be a very dark day for media plurality.

Along with its print and radio news outlets, News Corporation controls 20% of the market share across all UK media outlets, almost twice that of the news services provided by the BBC.

The report demonstrates that concentration in ownership across the UK’s news and information markets has reached endemic levels. The existing Public Interest Test (which sees regulators and government taking occasional looks at media plurality) has failed to prevent the continued concentration of UK media into fewer and fewer hands.

Along with wider structural remedies to protect local and regional media, the report recommends that ownership limits should be enshrined in statute, to ensure that the public is always served by a pluralistic and independent media. This is one of the few times I agree in having a statute for the media; to protect the freedom and plurality of the press.s have equal validity (sometimes called “false balance”). This may happen when a taboo exists around one of the viewpoints, or when one of the representatives habitually makes claims that are easily shown to be inaccurate.

One such allegation of misleading balance came from Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News in the US. He stated in an internal e-mail message that reporters should not “artificially hold George W. Bush and John Kerry “equally accountable” to the public interest, and that complaints from Bush supporters were an attempt to “get away with … renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry.” When the conservative web site the Drudge Report published this message, many Bush supporters viewed it as “smoking gun” evidence that Halperin was using ABC to propagandise against Bush to Kerry’s benefit, by interfering with reporters’ attempts to avoid bias. An academic content analysis of election news later found that coverage at ABC, CBS, and NBC was more favourable toward Kerry than Bush, while coverage at Fox News Channel was more favourable toward Bush.

Scott Norvell, the London bureau chief for Fox News, stated in a May 2005 interview with the Wall Street Journal that, “Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren’t subsidising Bill’s bombast; we payers of the BBC licence fee don’t enjoy that peace of mind. Fox News is, after all, a private channel, and our presenters are quite open about where they stand. That’s our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting. The BBC’s institutionalised leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was more honest about it.”

Another technique used to avoid bias is disclosure of affiliations that may be considered a possible conflict of interest. This is especially apparent when a news organisation is reporting a story with some relevance to the news organization itself or to its ownership.

Language may also introduce a more subtle form of bias. The selection of metaphors and analogies, or the inclusion of personal information in one situation but not another, can introduce bias. Use of a word with positive or negative connotations rather than a more neutral synonym, can form a biased picture in the audience’s mind. For example, it makes a difference whether the media calls a group “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” or “insurgents”.

In a widely criticised episode, initial online BBC reports of the 7 July 2005 London bombings identified the perpetrators as terrorists, in contradiction to the BBC’s internal policy. But by the next day, journalist Tom Gross noted that the online articles had been edited, replacing “terrorists” by “bombers”. In another case, March 28, 2007, the BBC paid almost $400,000 in legal fees in a London court to keep an internal memo dealing with alleged anti-Israeli bias from becoming public. The BBC has both been accused of having a pro-Palestinian bias, (with one example cited of a documentary falsely accusing Israel of developing a nuclear weapon during the second Palestinian intifada in 2000) and a pro-Israel bias.

A new research study has concluded that national press coverage of EU referendum campaign was “heavily skewed in favour of Brexit.” The bald figures produced by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism give the facts: 45% of 928 referendum articles it studied were in favour of leaving, while 27% backed the remain case. Some 19% were categorised as “mixed or undecided” and 9% were designated as adopting no position.

They also reveal that newspapers were more likely to quote Conservative rather than Labour politicians (69% to just 14%) in the articles. This reflects the fact that the Tories were fighting each other over the issue, while Labour was much more united.

Unsurprisingly, positions varied greatly between newspaper titles;

  1. The Daily Mail included the most pro-Brexit articles followed by the Daily Express, Daily Star, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph

  2. By contrast, the papers with the most pro-remain articles were, in order, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Financial Times.

  3. As for the Times, its articles were “relatively evenly balanced between the two positions, with a slight preponderance of pro-leave articles.”

All newspapers, whatever their main position, included some articles from the other point of view, but the proportion of these was smallest in the Express and Mirror.

As for the arguments advanced by papers, whether making a case for or against Brexit, the Sun and the Mirror both relied heavily on arguments around sovereignty. But the serious quartet – the FT, Guardian, Telegraph and Times – focused more on arguments around the economy, and the Express, Star and Mail preferred to focus on migration.

Since the 23rd June, the Brexit vote has highlighted how deeply divided our society is. An unexpected positive is that it has engaged the electorate in a way no Prime Minister or political party has managed for decades. However, we’ve also been reminded – with the advent of our second female Prime Minister – that we still have a long way to go in other ways.

In this case, it’s to do with shoes. There’s a prevailing sense of an outdated and sexist attitude towards the new Prime Minister (and let’s put aside whether you agree or disagree with her policy pronouncements). The Evening Standard, for example, seems more interested in “the most talked-about shoe closet” than it is in Mrs May’s qualities as a leader. The Telegraph once published a gallery of “Theresa May’s greatest footwear hits”. The day after it was confirmed Theresa May would be the new PM, The Sun’s front page headline screamed “Heel Boys” alongside a blown up picture of Mrs May’s shoes. Even the BBC, supposedly the bastion of unbiased reporting, decided to list “shoes” as one of the ‘seven notable things’ we should know about the UK’s next Prime Minister.

Esther McVey, one of May’s cabinet ministers, suggested that Theresa May wears different shoes as a subtle way of giving away a little bit of her personality. But why should anyone care? May’s shoes highlight a very sad fact about our society; the media are obsessed with them because she’s a woman. Perversely, this could work in her favour, as the over-eager reporters and photographers training their cameras on her feet, forget to look at what she’s doing in government.

The fact that Theresa May chooses to wear leopard print heels or bright red shoes to work has no bearing on her ability to do her job, but outdated dinosaurs like Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch think that it does. The journalist Alice Cuffe once helped to compound the problem by devoting an entire article to how Theresa May’s shoes are as important to her power as her politics. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. The point is, it doesn’t matter and people shouldn’t care.

Sarah Biddulph at ITV stated that an analysis of what women in the public eye wear is wrong, but it comes with the territory. That’s tragically misguided. It should make every single man, woman and child living in the 21st century angry. Sexism is nothing new, sadly, and it can cut both ways. The CIPD reported comments from workers who are regularly on the receiving end of sexist remarks. Here are a couple from the July 2016 edition of People Management;

  • “As I plugged in my laptop under a meeting room table, a senior director said: ‘While you’re down there, love…’. I wish I’d said something, but I just sat there and fumed.”

  • “I’m the only male member of staff in our HR department, and I often hear a lot of comments from female staff discussing male colleagues in inappropriate ways. I often feel very uncomfortable by these lewd comments, but I’m unable to challenge this behaviour.”

Until more people, men and women, stand up and declare, “You can’t say things like this,” and until more journalists and reporters have the courage to say “No, I won’t write about Theresa May’s shoes because they’re irrelevant to her position,” things like this will continue to happen.

Jennifer Aniston wrote an extremely insightful piece on the way women are portrayed by society, and reflected on a sexist press posing under the guise of serious journalism. But people like Aniston can’t highlight these problems alone, and they are problems. We need to speak out against the gender bias that still lingers in our society. Women and men in positions of authority must support anyone strong enough to do this, and we all must encourage others to join us. Like racism and bigotry, these outdated and unacceptable attitudes will hopefully die out along with their propagators, but we have to hurry them along to an early grave and ensure that they stay dead.

There will, of course, still be people who read this, shaking their heads and binning it as hyperbolic nonsense. To them, I ask this; can you imagine a male Prime Minister or business leader where the media focused on his shoes more than his ability to do a job? I can’t.

YouGov research across seven European countries, published in February 2017, reveals that British people are the most likely to say their media is biased in its reporting when asked about five key areas. At most, 32% of British people say the media gets the right balance on crime, falling behind the European average on housing, health, immigration, and economics. They’re also the most likely to say the press is right wing, as well to say the press is too negative about immigration (34%, compared to 25% who say it gets the balance about right and 24% who say it is too positive). In Finland, the number is 23%, and in France it’s 19%. Finland’s press is seen as having similar levels of right-wing bias, but in most of the other countries the media is, in contrast, seen as more faithful to the left.

It’s a common criticism of the British press that journalists are too biased, although it can be hard to tell which side they are supposed to favour. The BBC is a case in point – in the run up to the 2015 election, Labour criticised it for giving such prominence to fears over a deal with the SNP, and Nigel Farage became outraged after being booed on Question Time. It was a “remarkable audience, even by the left-wing standards of the BBC”, he said.

An analysis in 2013 claimed to have found statistical evidence for left-wing bias at the BBC, saying in only 10% of reports on stories by left-wing think tanks did the BBC qualify the findings with a “health warning” about the think tank’s views, ideological position, or connection to a political figure. However, it stated that the warning appeared in 25% to 60% of reports on research by right-wing sources, and was less likely to give them any coverage at all.

I’ve already mentioned – in passing – state regulation of the press. Are there any occasions when regulation is effective? Well, of course; the press are covered by the same laws as anyone else – blasphemy, slander, freedom of expression, etc. Does there need to be, however, a specific law regulating the press, or a Royal Commission overseeing it all?

To regulate a free press is very dangerous. However, on the flip side, the press need to ensure that they truly are free and representative of the population’s view – by being plural, accepting of different views, and not intruding in the private affairs of citizens. Oh, and ensuring that the stories they report are accurate. More on alternative facts later.

The Leveson Inquiry, and its subsequent report, was set up as a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press. This was in the well-known wake of the News International phone hacking scandal, and chaired by Lord Justice Leveson from its inception in 2011, with the report being published in November 2012.

The report made a number of recommendations, namely;

  • Leveson stopped short of recommending a compulsory statutory regulator, but he did recommend a new “independent regulatory body”, with the dual roles of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals.

  • The new self-regulatory body should be underpinned by statute, providing for a process to recognise the new body, ensure that it meets certain requirements, and enshrine in law a legal duty to protect the freedom of the press. Ofcom should act in a verification role to ensure independence and effectiveness.

  • The Chair and board members of the body should be independent of the press and Government, and should be appointed by an independent appointment panel. There should be no serving editor on the Board.

  • Its membership must be open to publishers on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms, including on different terms for different types of publisher.

  • The new system should be funded by the media industry.

  • The new regulator should have the power to direct appropriate corrections and apologies, and impose sanctions of up to 1% of turnover with a maximum of £1m.

  • The new body should establish a whistle-blowing hotline for journalists who feel they are being asked to do things which are contrary to the Code.

Publishers should be encouraged to sign up to the new regime through various legal incentives, including:

  • Access to a low cost arbitration service to deal with civil law complaints.

  • Being able to display a “kite mark” to establish a recognised brand of trusted journalism.

  • Membership being taken into account by the Information Commissioner in deciding whether to take any enforcement steps.

Section 40 of the proposed legislation based on Leveson’s report is an appalling piece of legislation that slashes through freedom of expression. It will muzzle and remove the fangs of the media, inhibit their ability to investigate, and won’t tackle their worst excesses.

In practical terms, Section 40 means newspapers have to join Impress – an untested organisation funded almost exclusively by one individual (a press critic at that) and approved by an official quango that itself reports to Parliament – or face huge legal costs even when they win.

If Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act 2013 is implemented, it would mean that media outlets which do not sign up to an officially “recognised” regulator would have to pay the costs for both sides in libel or privacy claims, whatever the outcome of the case. Since the costs of a libel trial can easily run into the millions, it’s no surprise that the issue has exercised publishers considerably.

The proposed regulator, Impress, is a deeply odd beast. Funded primarily by Max Mosley, it has very few publisher members, and none from among the major print or online news organisations. It has not yet finalised a code of conduct for its signatories and appears not to have handled any complaints. Yet as a consequence of it having been judged to have met criteria set down by the Leveson Report, it has taken on a significance that is disproportionate to its work and experience.

Of all the oddities here, perhaps the most obvious is that the debate about Section 40 arises not from phone-hacking but from the idea – discussed by Max Mosley and Lord Justice Leveson during the inquiry – that ordinary people cannot afford to bring legal proceedings against news publishers. This seems to be accepted as a given. Yet it’s unlikely that many editors would consider it so.

The truth is, if Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act is implemented, every member of the print and digital media which does not wish to sign up to Impress, will be forced to think twice before writing critically about any individual or organisation – however warranted the criticism. At a time when the media in the US is wondering whether a Donald Trump presidency will undermine historic press freedoms across the Atlantic, and when deliberate fake news can be sent spinning around the internet from Balkan bedrooms, it seems extraordinary that British-based publishers should be facing such a threat.

The UK Government must not implement this appalling piece of legislation – if it does, publishers will be damned.

The reaction to Leveson’s report was unsurprisingly mixed. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed many of the report’s findings, but expressed “serious concerns and misgivings” regarding the prospect of implementing the changes with legislation. Ed Milliband, the then-Labour Leader of the Opposition, called for full implementation of the report. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition, was unable to agree on a position with his coalition partner Cameron, so made his own statement, agreeing that changes in the law were necessary. In leaders the following day, the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent, Times, Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, and the Daily Mail broadly agreed with Cameron’s position, while the Guardian declared that Milliband had taken a “principled position”, but that “great care” would be required for the legislation.

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, which never signed up to the PCC, said he agreed with a lot of Leveson’s findings and the handling of the inquiry. However he disagreed with suggestions that those publications which did not voluntarily join up to the proposed self-regulatory body should be penalised by paying heavy costs and damages on potential libel actions, even if they won the case. The leader of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stainstreet, hailed Leveson’s backing of a contractual “conscience clause”.

Victims group Hacked Off called for full implementation of Leveson’s recommendations, and started a petition, which was signed by over 145,000 people by December 2012. Gerry McCann noted that Cameron had earlier made a pledge that he would implement the report if it was not “bonkers”. J K Rowling, who gave evidence to the inquiry, wrote that she did this in good faith and felt “duped and angry” by the Prime Minister’s response. Victims refused to meet the Culture Secretary, speaking of a sense of “betrayal”.

Talks about implementation between politicians and the press were scheduled to start in December 2012, and Lord Hunt, the then-chair of the PCC, said the new regulator should be set up by summer 2013. Addressing a conference in Sydney on privacy and the internet, Lord Justice Leveson stated he was watching developments in the UK “with interest”, but declined to comment further. He said: “I treat the report as a judgement, and judges don’t discuss judgements they’ve given. They don’t respond to comment, however misconceived, nor do they seek to correct error.”

So what does effective regulation look like? There are a number of ways the media can continue holding organisations to account but, as defenders of press freedom with no “buts”, I can’t support the proposals from Leveson. “Statutory backing” is simply state intervention by any other name.

The danger now is not crude censorship, but that an atmosphere is created in which we are left with a sanitised, timid, and tame press. Press freedom, like all liberties, is indivisible. We either have it for all, or for none at all. And nobody has to pass an ethical test, or be as pious as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, to qualify for the right to freedom of expression. Standing up for a free press means defending it for things we might not want to read or hear.

If the authorities must have a “statutory framework”, let them look to the USA, where the First Amendment makes it illegal to pass any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, and where the notion of a Lord Justice proposing new press regulations would be laughed out of court.

We do need a genuinely independent regulator, able to control newspapers when they cross the line and stray into that grey area of smear and innuendo. That regulator should be genuinely independent of the government and the media, and have the power to both hear complaints from ordinary members of the public and act on those complaints effectively, by disciplining newspapers if they transgress.

A good model for the regulator might be the Local Government Ombudsmen or the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A publicly funded Press Ombudsman could develop and promulgate a narrow but important principle: that the press has a responsibility not to destroy the lives of private individuals in the pursuit of profit on the basis of mere supposition, innuendo, and with wanton disregard for a meaningful public interest.

Established by statute, it could be subject to guaranteed long-term funding and be non-departmental (ie not overseen by a minister). Officials could be Crown appointments, but not selected by the Prime Minister, chosen instead by an independent recruitment panel drawn from a range of stakeholders, including the public. And the Ombudsman could avoid becoming a celebrity’s privacy shield by concerning itself with the “vulnerability” of claimants. From time to time this would of course include the dependants or associates of celebrities, who, as the case of Charlotte Church’s mother shows, can be subject to harassment, and even celebrities themselves. But by having regard to a person’s circumstances, means and whether the person’s standing and power are factors in the coverage, the Ombudsman would, focus principally on the vulnerable.

Being required to print full front page apologies to individuals could cause editors to interest themselves in the facts of their coverage. But the public will want real teeth. So the Ombudsman should be able to impose fines, some very steep, to be paid in whole or part to the injured parties.

A Press Ombudsman would carry a big stick. This is a remedy likely to have more lasting impact than either imposing onerous and prescriptive codes, statutory or otherwise, or doing nothing.

Let’s look lastly at alternative news; how do we prevent the continued rise of the awful tendency towards media outlets either reporting what’s being said as true, or even selectively creating their own fake news and anything that contradicts their own version of the truth?

It was at Donald Trump’s first press conference as President-elect when the term “fake news” broke out of media discussions and into the mainstream. “You are fake news!” he pointed at CNN’s Jim Acosta while refusing to listen to his question. Since then, the new President of the USA has been calling out major media outlets several times a week for being ‘FAKE NEWS’ via his Twitter feed – particularly CNN and the New York Times. But why is Donald Trump using the term ‘fake news’ so frequently, and where did it come from?

Bending the truth for political gain is certainly nothing new; it’s propaganda, and the record of its use stretches back to ancient times. The rising trend of fake news, however, is very different to previous state controlled methods of 20th century propaganda. What we saw often here were small groups of people taking advantage of social media interaction and algorithms by creating articles filled with hyperbole around a major political event: the US Presidential election.

2016 proved a fertile breeding ground for fake news, with the narrative of the US election campaign providing a near perfect topical backdrop. The event would be discussed globally, while the debate was polarised, allowing for greater polemic against the candidates.

Donald Trump was a key ingredient. His campaign waved an anti-establishment banner, undermining the “dynasty” candidate Hillary Clinton by repeatedly calling her “crooked”, and proclaiming that he wanted to “drain the swamp” of Washington. He also courted conspiracy theories. Initially, he suggested that an opponent’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK, perpetuated the myth of Obama not being born in the United States, and repeatedly claimed climate change as a hoax. As a wildcard candidate, he attracted massive media attention, itself fuelled by a series of controversial policy suggestions – like building a border wall between Mexico and the US, or ‘a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.’

Trump’s unpredictability, and his distrust of his opponents, led to a growth in fake news that was supportive of him. In an atmosphere where you never know what might happen next or what to believe, you’re going to be more receptive to hyperbole and truth distortion.

However, others have blamed the rise of social media and the “filter bubble”, the phenomenon of showing users things that they like or tend to agree with, and hiding those that they don’t. Critics say this distorts a neutral playing field, meaning the most incendiary stories get more attention.

While often used statistics – 62% of Americans using social networks as a source of news, and 44% primarily using Facebook – could be used to reinforce that fake news has real influence, they are really quite general figures.

The introduction to a comprehensive study by Stanford University, Social Media & Fake News in the 2016 Election, states; “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.”

Some claim that the term fake news has now been co-opted by politicians and commentators to mean anything they disagree with – making the term essentially meaningless, and more of a stick to beat the mainstream press with than a phenomenon in itself.

Since the US election, there have been fears that the proliferation of fake news will spread to Europe in an attempt to swing elections in France and Germany, where far-right groups such as the Front National and Alternative fur Deutschland are looking to make gains.

Facebook and Google have promised to crack down on misinformation, although they have been criticised for failing to accept their place in its spread. Steps they’re planning to take include working with independent fact-checking organisations and labelling suspicious stories as such.

So whether you read, repeat or repost news, here are things to ask yourself:

  • Have I heard of the publisher before?

  • Is this the source I think it is?

  • Can I point to where this happened on a map?

  • Has this been reported anywhere else?

  • Is there more than one piece of evidence for this claim?

  • Could this be something else?

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