How ironic that Facebook relies on print newspapers to disseminate fake news message

Even Facebook itself has acknowledged there is an issue with fake news

You will have heard of the phenomenon of fake news. It’s a complex concept but one which has rapidly entered the modern lexicon, to the point where simply calling out something as ‘fake news’ is immediately understood. If a story appears and is is labelled fake news we all know what that means.

It is biased, false, targeted at a specific segment of the population and usually originates from a special interest group, a political party or candidate. Fake news is usually presented in the manner of a legitimate newspaper or other news source. Once read by someone and shared as being factual, it is very difficult to counter.

Last night’s BBC Panorama documentary investigated the role played by Facebook in the American presidential election and the 2016 Brexit referendum. Setting aside the money spent, there is something inherently anti democratic underlying the extent to which Facebook can influence how so many people come to make such major decisions including what way to vote.

Political parties and even lobby groups are of course entitled to attempt to use media outlets to their advantage, that has been happening for centuries and over time has become more sophisticated. No doubt Facebook and other social media platforms allow for very targeted messaging at specific sub segments of the population which makes sense and is creates an efficient way of getting your message across.

But when the targeted message is a false one, built on a scare tactic, that’s when targeting news becomes an ethical issue.

Facebook is unregulated, doesn't answer to either Ofcom or the Press Ombudsman and is not subject to challenge over its content. So for example when Leave campaigners identified fishermen as a group with their own specific issues in the EU referendum that’s okay, in fact that's good political campaigning.

But when that group of people is targeted with a specific message which plays on their legitimate fears for their industry, then that message should be accurate, balanced and factually correct. As things stand, no one is assessing if that is the case and in many instances they simply are not.

In the Presidential election in the USA last year both main parties freely admit to targeting specific sets of voters through Facebook, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in doing so.

The director of advertising for the Republican Party, is content to acknowledge the role played by Facebook in Trump’s victory and how it enabled the campaign to target voters. He said: "So if you are on Facebook, I can then match you and put you into a bucket of users that I can then target. The way we bought media on Facebook was like no one else in politics has ever done.”

With 32 million Facebook users in the UK we can be sure that the big parties with the spending power will be looking very carefully about how to target and craft opinion among key demographics sub sets of voters. When you log onto Facebook and see a video on your stream it is as likely to have been paid for and promoted as it is to be from one of your social media friends.

Does all this matter? Yes it does, more than ever. Unfortunately the way news and politics is digested these days means the average person will concentrate on an issue for no more than a minute or two before moving on. ‘News’ fake or otherwise is likely simply to be absorbed and assumed to be accurate and legitimate.

Political commentator Janan Garesh rightly observed last week that public indifference to politics has led to the pre eminence of undistinguished, average ability political leaders. Only the current level of political indifference could allow Theresa May to go through an entire political campaign and say nothing of any substance beyond stock sound-bites. Unfortunately that tactic is appearing in our own local politics as well.

We should be in a position to trust our own instincts, to wade through fake news and be able to distinguish facts from campaigning. Sadly, and demonstrably, that is not the case.

Even Facebook itself has acknowledged there is an issue. Last month Facebook posted notices helping users to identify fake news, and also took action against 10,000 fake accounts which are assumed to have been established purely to disseminate fake news and influence the national agenda. With the UK election in mind Facebook is entering into a "fact-checking partnership" with Google which will work with newsrooms to address rumours and misinformation spreading online ahead of the election on 8 June.

The highest profile step was an advertisement in yesterday’s national UK newspapers. The ads carry a list of 10 things to look out for when deciding if a story is genuine, including checking an article date and website address, as well as making sure it isn't intended as satire.

There is something satisfying ironic to see Facebook relying on good old print newspapers to disseminate its message about fake news. Meanwhile the readers the Irish News can be confident that they are getting the real deal when it comes to daily news . . .

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast.

:: Next week: Conor Lambe


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