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How can we ensure truthfulness, online and off?

The truth matters, but it is a mistake to think of 'fake news' as only a technology problem.

As Ofcom CEO Sharon White correctly points out in her Times article last week, social media is driving rapid change in the way people access and consume news. It has enabled people to access more diverse sources of information and has facilitated the growth of whole new types of journalism from the likes of Vice, Vox and Buzzfeed.  But social media has also suffered from a proliferation of deliberately inaccurate information varying from relatively benign clickbait to seriously harmful false stories designed to undermine democratic processes.

White suggests a new regulator might need to step in to address the proliferation of what is now dubbed ‘fake news’. On the face of it the case for regulation looks compelling. Private businesses, for very legitimate reasons, can struggle to act where they fear crossing the line on free speech. But regulators may also find that this proves difficult territory to enter. This is undeniably an extremely important issue. So how do we ensure that we address it in the right way?

Fake news is simply a new name for an old problem. Lies and disinformation have long pre-dated digital media. Indeed propagandists have often been at the forefront of exploiting new technology – whether it was the printing press or radio.

So, if we are to create an independent regulator to oversee online news we must ensure that the same standards apply offline as well as online. No one disagrees with need to combat fake news online, but it must be done legally, fairly, effectively and with due process. A new regulator that is set up to be a guardian of the truth will have an incredibly difficult path to steer.

Technology clearly plays a vital role, but it would be a mistake to consider ‘fake news’ simply as a technology problem to which there is a simple technology solution. At its very core ‘fake news’ is about fundamental untruths, how we identify them and how we respond to them as a society. But at a time when political views are particularly polarised understanding what is and isn’t factually accurate information is likely to challenge potential regulators just as much as it does technology companies today and journalists today.

In the UK we have a long tradition of highly partisan media. Coverage of the same event can be wildly different depending on the media outlets political perspective, blurring the line between fact and opinion, and even fact and fiction.

We must avoid a situation where an article that would be seen as acceptable in print format, is considered to be in breach of a new online code. Would a new regulator hold elected politicians and traditional media to the same standard of truthfulness that they would demand from social media platforms? The Daily Mail has already been banned as a source from Wikipedia for its “reputation for poor fact checking and sensationalism”.  Do we all agree that this is a good thing or is it a reflection of liberal bias in Wikipedia? There are many examples of democratically elected politicians sharing or spinning news that is misleading or outright false. This presents real challenges for established traditional media, never mind for social media platforms. How effective do we believe social media platforms need to be in identifying, verifying and taking down fake news? How would a regulator be able to keep up with the volume of decisions taken by such companies? How would it know if legitimate content was being inappropriately blocked by these companies? Is it appropriate for an international for-profit companies to be the arbiters of what is and is not legitimate news for UK citizens?

In many circumstances, ‘fake’ might be easy to spot but an equal number, if not more, it will require fact-checking, close inspection and a judgement call. What this process will look like and what resources such a regulator would have are important details that need to be thought through.

Tackling fake news is a challenge that extends far beyond the role of technology and social media companies. Politicians, advocacy groups, and traditional media all have a role to play in ensuring that a democratic society can be informed by accurate and verifiable open information. A fake news regulator will have an incredibly difficult and sensitive job on its hands. We need to think very carefully therefore about whether this is indeed the right approach. Getting this wrong could make today’s problems very much worse. So lets ask the hard questions now and ensure we build an approach that works.


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