Fans of American TV series ‘The X Files’ will know that however apparently inexplicable or mysterious were the events that its heroes, Mulder and Scully, had to deal with, they were always doggedly in pursuit of the truth. Only then could a rational explanation be found, even when faced with the irrational, conspiracy theories or lies of others. The sceptic scientist, Scully had to become open-minded wherever Mulder stumbled upon unconventional, hidden agendas of government.
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2016 is remembered for two major democratic events: the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President. But it was also when the concept of ‘truth’ to inform decision-making became unexpectedly questioned. False information masquerading as truth spread like wildfire, primarily via social media and in particular Facebook. ‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ became new buzzwords to confuse our perception of truth. And it has certainly affected democracy in dangerous ways casting doubt over the legitimacy of both Trump’s election and the UK referendum result.
Distrust in mass media has been building here in the UK for many years – think of the phone-hacking tabloids scandal and rigged TV phone-in competitions. So it is no surprise that those in search of ‘the truth’ have been seeking it elsewhere. I worked in TV broadcast including news operations for many years, and I can confidently state that the rigorous editorial checking processes in place at the BBC and commercial news outlets are incredibly efficient, i.e. it would be very difficult to get a fake news story to broadcast stage. The regulator, Ofcom, has very stiff penalties for licensees who break the strict impartiality and fair reporting rules that govern our media companies. But here’s the scary thing – a 2018 Ofcom survey into where people find their news found Facebook as the third most popular source (see table below):
Facebook is not moderated or regulated in the same sense at all – some say there is almost no process at work. Anyone can self-publish whatever they want, have it shared multiple times and endorsed with ‘likes’. Any user can have their personal world-view confirmed in endless uncontrolled echo-chambers. Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to maintain that Facebook is not a ‘media publisher’ and therefore should not be held to account for its content. Yet this is nonsense. Additionally, the extent to which Facebook allowed the harvesting of the personal data of 50 million users to Cambridge Analytica was staggeringly exposed in 2018 – but crucially, damage to democracy has already been done. It is not known exactly how many accounts are fake themselves.
Zuckerberg famously appeared in front of U.S Congress to apologise and promise to improve, but it’s too little too late. We need to stay in the EU to remain a strong, united voice against the dominance of social media corporates, and to fight the new misinformation war. In the UK, Facebook was fined £500,000 – the current maximum our UK law allows - but under the new EU GDPR legislation the maximum fine would have been £1.4 billion. That would certainly make them change their ways.
The EU itself published a list of UK newspaper stories over many years that have no doubt ‘informed’ UK voters into voting Leave – yet are totally false. Over 40 years’ worth of predominantly negative stories in British mass media about the EU is one hell of a lot to counterbalance.
But the truth is out there – we all need to ensure it is clear, 100% factual and highly shareable. And now that more information is coming to light about the impact of Brexit, it is vital - now more than ever - that we get a People's Vote on the Brexit deal.