News itself is now the news. ‘Fake news’ is a thing. It started towards the end of the US Presidential Election campaign, with suggestions that false stories dressed up to look like genuine news might have influenced the outcome of the election.
Facebook was condemned for allowing fake news reports to infiltrate its feeds and later the UK government set up an inquiry, because, as they rightly say, fake news has the potential to ‘threaten democracy and confidence in the media’.
But lately it has become another thing all together. And, for me, a much more worrying one – because ‘fake news’ is fast becoming a label for ‘news that I don’t like’.
Donald Trump used his first press conference as US President to accuse news outlets of reporting ‘fake news’ after they accurately reported his inauguration crowd size and continues to use this label for any news organisation that reports anything that he appears to disagree with.
Journalists covering the White House who have questioned this have been denied access to their primary source of news as a result.
The effect of this, most probably deliberately, is to begin to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the public, calling into question everything we read, making it all the more important for us to be able to tell fact from ‘alternative fact’.
Cutting out the middle man
What makes it harder for us to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news is the ability that Governments and powerful individuals now have to bypass official media outlets and have a direct conversation with whoever is listening.
On social media – particularly on Twitter, where opinion can be presented as fact, it is possible to filter your online world so that you only have to listen to what you agree with. Soon we are all living in our own bubbles, believing that everyone who thinks like us are the only ones speaking ‘the truth’.
So what can we do about it? The media certainly have a challenge in shouldering the responsibility for accurate reporting more than ever before, but I think we all need to take some responsibility too.
Awareness is an important starting point, but then we should get more used to questioning what we consume. Read from many different sources, connect with people you have a difference of opinion with but know whose opinion you can trust.
Most importantly, understand that not everything is black and white –embrace the grey but at the same time, learn to distinguish between what is opinion and what is fact.