The world as told by social media is a stream of increasingly outrageous headlines- Germany legalising child marriage, a deadly epidemic in Texas, Pope Francis coming out for Trump. Funny, right. Who could possibly believe the factual vandalism on the Facebook wall of news? You, enlightened reader, pride yourself on being able to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Are you sure?
In Ofcom’s 2016 report on media use and attitudes the majority (83%) of internet users are either very or fairly confident that they know what isn’t news i.e. advertising or outright made-up stories. Yet when tested only half (49%) could identify sponsored links on Google and Facebook. This shows an enormous disconnect between how good the public believe that they are in identifying non-factual content, and how good they actually are at it. Even more alarming, Ofcom shows that a significant number (38%) agree with the proposition that they do not care about who sponsors content as long as it is entertaining.
Failing to clock that an article about sleeping difficulties is paid for by Nytol (other sleeping pills are available) is not the same thing as believing Hillary Clinton has been murdering FBI agents. But they stem from the same post-truth blur that the internet – while not creating the hoax phenomenon – has radically turbo-charged. Nor is fake news simply the preserve of trailer park. The established press are also implicated. That infamous Trump quote from the Eighties where he says that if he were he to run for President it would be as a Republican because Republican voters are stupid was widely reported by the liberal media, including titles as eminent at The Guardian and The Economist. It encapsulated everything we know about Trump the Conman. Yet it was entirely made up. If we must be subjected to fake news from the liberal elite, we must expect it from the great unwashed
An important reason for the escalation of fake news is a corresponding decline in levels of public trust in the UK. This is particularly apparent in politics (21%) and journalism (29%). If Brexit and Trump signal a global backlash against the so-called establishment, then is it so surprising that both the current powerholders and those who are charged with holding them to account are held in such low regard? If, to riff on a slogan, we want to make news true again, then those in power and tasked with setting the bar need to earn back the public’s trust. For politicians, this means not patronising the electorate by offering to listen to their concerns only to disregard them later with gimmick politics.