Is fake news a real problem or are we just too suspicious?

Most people who have heard the term ‘fake news’ will have done so because of former US President Donald Trump, who consistently used the term during his 2016 Presidential campaign. But is it really that much of a problem, or have our fears made us too sceptical of what we consider ‘news’? Business Leader investigated.

The UK’s obsession with ‘fake news’

Suspicions of fake news are far from limited to former US Presidents. A Journolink survey of 1,000 UK adults found that 45% of the British public believe they encounter fake news online every day, and a further 19.64% believe they encounter fake news online at least once a week. The survey also revealed that only one-fifth believe they never encounter fake news. But is the UK public right to be so suspicious?

According to Rachel Howarth, Journalism Lecturer at the University of Salford and former Content Editor for LancsLive, there are potential legal ramifications for journalists who engage in ‘fake news’.

“The term ‘fake news’ is generally quite irritating to an editor,” says Howarth. “I say this as a former editor who is proud of having integrity and promoting responsible journalism. No editor who is worth their salt would even consider publishing ‘fake news’. There is a whole process of research and verifying facts before the story ever reaches publication. Legally, you can face defamation claims if you publish untrue information about a person or organisation without proper research proving the facts are accurate.”

Howarth also points out that the UK’s independent regulator for magazines and newspapers, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), monitors what is being published.

She continues: “In a similar way, publications are monitored by IPSO, which can launch an investigation into the standards of a publication. If you are found to be in breach of these standards, you can be fined up to £1m. It is absolutely not worth it. I don’t know why anyone would publish ‘fake news’ anyway and call themselves a journalist. It’s not in the spirit of it.”

Owen Williams, a Solicitor Advocate and Notary Public who works in Clarke Willmott’s commercial and private client litigation team, expands further on the legal ramifications of publishing fake news.

He comments: “The problem here tends to centre around a lack of proper sourcing for stories. If the author hasn’t properly sourced a story, not only does this decrease the likelihood of being able to run a defence of truth, it also means they will not be able to run a public interest defence if they cannot show they have engaged in responsible journalism.

“Whilst ‘fake news’ may not be defamatory of an individual, that is not the only risk and issues of breach of privacy and/or the GDPR rules may arise. In addition, if the story is repeated in a series, they run the risk of getting into harassment territory.

“Personal data and GDPR is becoming a factor in an increasing number of cases when it comes to ‘fake news.’ In 1992 for example, Jason Donovan successfully sued for libel after the publication of an article claiming that he was homosexual. In today’s world being called homosexual would not be defamatory (although if there was an element of hypocrisy alleged then that might be defamatory) but a claim could still arise under GDPR, as a person’s sexual orientation is their personal data.”

As there are potential legal ramifications for journalists and news outlets this could explain why traditional media is one of the most trusted news sources. According to Statista, in 2021, 57% of adults around the world trust traditional media, 59% trust search engines and 43% trust owned media. Significantly however, only 37% of adults trust social media as a source of general news and information.

A 2019 study by Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre found that 42.8 percent of news sharers admit to sharing inaccurate or false news. Facebook famously bolstered its fact-checking network to prevent the spread of misinformation about coronavirus too, so the risk of fake news appearing on social media appears to be very real.

Can we trust traditional media?

Whilst you might take what you read on social media with a pinch of salt, should we be doing the same when it comes to traditional media and ‘fake news’?

The potential for legal ramifications certainly provides a big reason why traditional media should be trusted more than what you find on social media platforms. However, this doesn’t stop traditional media outlets from misleading newsreaders and nor did it in the past.

Carole O’Reilly, Journalism Historian and Senior Lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, provides an overview of the use of scandalous headlines by media outlets throughout history.

She comments: “Headlines are used to get attention and to (in the pre-digital era) sell newspapers. Scandalous and salacious headlines have always been used in this way. Two of the most famous newspaper headlines of the pre-internet era were Gotcha! (1982) and Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster (1986). Both are from the Sun, which generated some of the most scandalous headlines of the twentieth century.

“Gotcha! was a response to the sinking of the Argentine ship, the Belgrano by British forces during the Falklands War. The Sun’s Editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie later regretted it (due to the large loss of life on board the Belgrano) and it was changed in a later edition of the paper (the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch felt that this change was a mistake).

“The Freddy Starr headline is a classic example of pre-internet clickbait as Starr had not actually eaten a hamster but put one in between two slices of bread as a joke. This occurred in an era when celebrity news stories were becoming more and more popular and often featured as front-page news in many British tabloids.”

If you look at the rulings and resolution statements on the IPSO website, there are plenty of instances where traditional media outlets have been sanctioned for the accuracy of their content too. For example, The Mail Online, the website of the Daily Mail, was recently sanctioned for breaching the Editor’s Code of Practice for an article it published in July 2021, which focused on the early release of “London Bridge terror attack hero Steven Gallant” from prison.

Whilst this shows that traditional media is guilty of engaging in inaccurate reporting from time to time, the fact that outlets are being penalised means they have to be more conscious of what they put out in the UK.

How much of a problem is Clickbait?

Clickbait is the term used to describe a text or thumbnail link that is designed to attract internet users to follow that link, but the link itself is typically considered misleading, deceptive or sensationalised. You won’t have to look far on social media to see people complaining about clickbait, but have things always been this way and how much of a problem is it really?

O’Reilly says clickbait has always been around but awareness of it is a more recent development.

“The issue with so-called clickbait is that the headline promises something that the story does not deliver (as in the Freddy Starr story). This can cause readers to become frustrated if it occurs often enough and risks losing their trust and, hence, their attention. As a historian, I would say that clickbait has been around as long as journalism has but there is more discussion of it now and some people are more aware of it and more distrustful of the media as a result.

“A successful headline delivers both attention and income (true now and in the analogue age) but clickbait damages that relationship and that is its danger.”

Rachel Howarth highlights some additional consequences for those engaging in the practice.

She comments: “There are ramifications from search engines (such as Google) and social media sites, which are cracking down on clickbait. Responsible publishers are deterred from using clickbait due to the fact that their publication can be punished – which will ultimately result in their content being hidden from audiences.

“Facebook is particularly strict with clickbait. Its algorithms essentially mean that sites sharing clickbait will have their content ‘downgraded’ i.e. the content will be shown to fewer people and their audience will suddenly drop off. This is enough to make (a lot of) publishers behave sensibly.”

However, Owen Williams, says there is a fundamental difference between clickbait and “traditional” news articles when it comes to potentially defamatory material.

“Historically, a headline will be taken into consideration along with the accompanying article taken as a whole. So, whether the piece is defamatory depends on the entire contents of the headline and article together, which means a headline that on its own would be defamatory is maybe saved by the contents of the article.”

“The difference with clickbait is that, by definition, the headline and the article are not in the same place and whilst these headlines are designed to entice readers to click on them and then to read the main story, the reality is that many will read the headline but not go through to the story. A court may well take the view, therefore, that the headline fails to be judged as a free-standing publication and so may not be saved by the underlying article.

“By definition, clickbait is sensationalist because lurid details are what grabs people’s attention so the risk of it being defamatory as a free-standing publication is significant and the context of the underlying article may not be taken into account.”

Whilst it pays to be vigilant when reading the news and for being selective about which sources you place value upon, it’s important not to fall into the trap of having total distrust for any news outlet. Further regulation might be needed to eradicate fake news entirely, but current legislation means it just wouldn’t be practical for outlets to post it all the time. There will always be some honest journalists around too.

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