LONDON: From Brexit to Breitbart News and Trump’s tweets, fake news has become very real.
We’re surrounded by it. Whether it’s the size of the crowd at the US president’s inauguration, or at a teenager’s birthday party, we live in a world where exaggerations, distortions and downright lies so often go unchecked. They have almost become the norm.
Gavin Esler, former presenter of the BBC’s flagship political show “Newsnight,” is under no illusion as to the seriousness of the problem.
For him, fake news is not merely something that can skew the public’s opinion and political debates. It can be deadly.
“We’ve never had a political culture where lies being told so shamelessly don’t seem to have any consequences,” he told Arab News in an interview.
“That may have something to do with the technology, but this is people lying to your face and not being punished for it.”
In the Internet age fake news spreads like wildfire — but it is not, of course, a new problem.
Esler — who is now an author and chancellor of the University of Kent in his native UK — points to a controversy that dates back to the 1990s involving a fraudulent medical paper that claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could lead to autism. The claim was widely reported by the media but eventually discredited — yet led to a drop in vaccination rates and inevitable deaths.
“We are actually talking about children’s lives here,” said Esler. “Fake news can kill people, and I think that’s really really worrying.”
Fake news may take the form of skewed stories in the mainstream media, false posts by dodgy websites, or messages spread between people.
In India, for example, numerous deaths have been attributed to rumors spread among people via WhatsApp. The sharing of gruesome videos and photos of strangers has created mass hysteria in some villages, with mobs having attacked, and sometimes killed, people they do not recognize.
This is an extreme example of what Esler calls the “awful echo chamber of phony news.”
One of Esler’s particular bugbears is the fake news epidemic around the Brexit debate in the UK. Those in favor of leaving the EU famously — yet falsely — claimed that the move would allow additional funding of £350 million ($460 million) a week to the National Health Service.
“I accepted the vote, until I realized just how deceitful the ‘leave’ campaign had been — there were lies, they cheated, the money was used illegally according to the Electoral Commission.
“Brexit is turning out to be a really really bad meal. We ordered steak and chips and we’ve now got some raw chicken that smells bad. And I’m not going to swallow it — and I don’t think other people are going to swallow it either.”
So what can the mainstream media do to fight the scourge of fake news around such divisive political debates?
Aside from scrutinizing the facts, editors should be more wary of bogus or partisan “experts” when seeking commentary on the issues of the day, said Esler.
“What we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a constant denigration of expertise and experts,” he said.
“There are people who appear on television who are paid for by shadowy think tanks whose financing they won’t come clean about.
“If someone appears on television and makes a comment, and we quote that comment, we are being accurate. But are we actually being sensible if we don’t know if that comment is based on any facts whatsoever? It is something that journalists have to be much more aware of.”
Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter also have a responsibility to fight fake news and hate speech — although it might not always be in their best interests to do so, said Esler. “If somebody is driving traffic on Twitter by saying something obnoxious, then that is actually good business for them. So their ability to limit it is limited by their ability to cut their own profits.”
Esler’s first experience as a journalist was at his university newspaper, before working at the Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland, and later the BBC.
So if he could turn back the clock, would he still become a journalist given the difficulties of the profession in the fake-news age? Esler said writing is in his blood — but had some words of advice for others looking to enter the media.
“What I do say to our university students who study journalism (is that) if you want to be a journalist because you want to be famous and be on television, that’s possibly not the right career for you.
“But if you are relentlessly curious about just about anything, it might possibly be.”