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Why We Should Be Wary Of The Panic Around Fake News

08/03/2017 17:32 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 17:32 GMT
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Everyone will tell you the old chestnut about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. A story that appears credible and sensational will also be memorable. Just ask Freddie Starr's hamster.

But of course, there is a widespread concern about sensationalised and false reporting getting out of hand, resulting in an epidemic spread of fake news. Only recently, Theresa May accused Jeremy Corbyn of using 'alternative facts' against her in parliament, while the head of Apple, Tim Cook, went as far as to claim that fake news is 'killing people's minds'.

Fake news is shocking in its very nature as a departure from traditional media, which offers us news from a professional elite - a community of journalists, politicians and PR folk. It isn't a perfect system, but they largely play by the rules, formal ones like media law, as well as less formal 'rules of the game', which are more flexible.

Although changeable, these rules serve an important function. As sophisticated consumers, we find it easy to tell when fake news is offered to us by this professional elite. Properly fake stories have the character of an April Fools' Day feature - they need the right balance of apparent veracity, mixed with some elements that prompt readers to say 'hang on a minute...'. These stories appear at special times and places. They are not news.  Because these rules work so well, we all get the gag. They are harmless.

Fake news is in the domain of amateurs, or, indeed, professional liars with a dark agenda. They may want to poke fun, plot the downfall of a government, or get us to vote against our own better interests - anyone can get involved.

These people may not adhere to the rules, but they have pretty good access to liberal communication channels, especially social media. The news format is easy enough to copy, and unregulated amateurs can easily knock out a story that has wonderful appeal. If that appeal extends to the most despicable mores of the most gullible bigot, then so be it.

The fake news producer has no regulator, no proprietor, no lawyer, no editorial line to toe, and no occupational conventions to broach. In this more liberal environment, a combination of credible, entertaining fakes and poor credulous citizens mean that we appear to be losing our ability to discriminate. And because fakes may appear even more likely, sensational and worthy of sharing than their less lurid counterparts, the fake story may overshadow professional coverage. That's disappointing.

However, the current democratic climate shares the blame here; when policy statements and government practices seem to move beyond parody, as they have for many incredulous viewers in recent months, this creates a lush environment for fakery. Over time, this behaviour in the public eye, at home and abroad, has robbed us of a sense of outrage and disbelief. Fake news is certainly corrosive to democracy, but the guardians of democracy have done themselves very few favours.  

Ultimately, what we should be more cautious of is not sensational, fake news articles, but the panic over fake news itself. This particularly applies to today when, around the world, restrictions on free and open reporting are on the rise once again. The current fuss plays straight into the hands of politicians who may claim to be targeting fake news, but act in ways that restrict legitimate free reporting, and deny its proper democratic function. That would leave us all the poorer. 

Even as a former journalist and government PR man, even as a fed up, but occasionally entertained reader, I'll put up with a bit of fake news. It's a free country, and I'd like it to stay that way.