Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: Misinformation must be stamped out of politics

Dr Orna Young, director of FactCheckNI
Dr Orna Young, director of FactCheckNI

WHAT builds trust in politics?

Honesty is essential, but it's not enough.

No-one should expect politicians to make no mistakes or never mis-speak.

On top of honest intentions, people want to see diligence, an open mind, and the ability to admit errors and correct them.

These are reasonable things to ask for – and not just in politics. They are relevant to every aspect of our lives.

The modern world is full of misleading information, ranging from honest mistakes and misinterpretations, to deliberate disinformation and propaganda.

The world is also full of good information.

Social media and the internet have turbocharged our ability to share information, both good and bad. Telling the difference between the two is a life skill that is now more important than at any time in human history

Sometimes it feels like misinformation is winning in a long-running arm wrestle with accuracy and reality.

It doesn't have to be that way but each one of us has a role to play in making things better.

FactCheckNI is Northern Ireland's first and only dedicated fact-checking service. It was founded in response to concerns about the growing power of mis- and disinformation.

Our independent fact checkers identify important public statements relevant to people in Northern Ireland. We interrogate each one with the best available evidence before publishing articles showing what we found – and how we found it.

We do this both to dispel any inaccuracies in that specific case and, perhaps more importantly, to improve the quality of public discourse here.

This is important work, and work that we cannot do on our own.

Who checks the fact checkers? The answer is you. We – like everyone else – will make mistakes, but our transparency allows what we do to be examined by anyone and, if we have made an error, we will correct it. Anyone in a public position should do the same.

However, the pollution of public information won't be fixed by fact-checking alone.

A step change is needed in how we all deal with the things we watch, listen to and read.

Inaccurate information places obstacles between people and their ability to make good choices. Accurate information helps us understand and relate to the communities around us, the issues impacting our lives, and allows us to make informed decisions.

Politics is not the only arena where this matters – but it might be one of the most important. Polling shows that the Northern Irish public lacks trust in its elected representatives. This erosion of faith has not happened in a vacuum.

Public debate and discussion are the foundations of democracy. If the reliability of those discussions is corroded, so is everything else.

Whether it's the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, wild claims about the Northern Ireland Protocol or the infamous Brexit bus, misinformation has infiltrated the public realm.

Too many politicians are careless with accuracy and the truth. Some are happy to misrepresent it. Far too few are willing to admit mistakes.

All this needs to change. Current official countermeasures are inadequate.

The Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards does investigate complaints about elected representatives' behaviour. Yet their remit does not extend to the use and spread of inaccuracies, and misinformation is not referenced in the Code of Conduct. Reform of these rules is essential.

The last few years have shown why misinformation has no place in public debate. The time for change is now.

To read more about the work of FactCheckNI or to submit a claim to be checked by our team, visit www.factcheckni.org.

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