How come you can walk into a travel agency and rest assured they won’t send you on holiday to Sanaa or Kabul this year, but you’ll believe any old garbage on social media just because it’s in print? How come you’ll cross question your teenage child several times about that late night out, but you’ll believe every word President Trump says the moment he says it? And why take the antics of antivaxxers seriously against the total reassurance of the best scientists in the world and the overwhelming empirical evidence of the success of covid vaccinations?
These paradoxes lie at the heart of one of the most serious threats to democracy that exist today – fake news and its growing destruction of the truth. Fake news now assaults and overwhelms us from every possible direction. This includes the tsunami of lies flowing through the sewers of social media, where any pimply social failure can publish pure nonsense from the tablet in his basement, the troll and bot factories created and paid for by nation states, the corrupt TV stations and shock jocks on radio.
How do we cope with this blinding blizzard of baloney? I’m a reporter, so I know how to do it. The answer for me lies in the single word SOURCE. What is the source of the “fact”? Reuters? Associated Press? The Times? BBC? Bloomberg? Just some of the organisations that deal in, and make damn sure, that what they publish or broadcast is the truth.
But whereas source checking comes to me as easily as breathing, not everyone has the time, energy or specialised knowledge to carry out the methodology of fact checking. At the BBC as a reporter, I needed rigorous and constant checking of my work before I was allowed to broadcast from studio or location. This meant that if I, or my peers, told you in a breaking news flash that Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles were heading for London, it meant they were heading for London.
If the same announcement came from an hysterical disc jockey on local Radio Effingham, or yet another Twitter head-case, would, should, it have the same impact? We in journalism now have a duty to help teach our listeners and readers just how crucial sources are to their understanding of the world around them. How do we do it?
The BBC has a department called “Reality Check” which checks the hard facts associated with a story whose source may be questionable, or even a source with good intentions that has got something wrong. The Corporation’s Reality Check is the hallmark of safe journalism. I wonder if this might not be the first step in creating a source checking system? What about a hallmark or kite-mark of excellence that can be stamped on every news source with the reputation to earn and deserve it – a kite-mark of truth if you like? Who would award this, what would be the qualifications, or how one could deal with forged kite-marks are issues, but at least this might be one process in creating a trustworthy system.
It’s odd that when it comes to ordinary consumer items – food, cars, holidays – we will take the utmost trouble to do our research before parting with our cash. You wouldn’t buy a secondhand car without scrupulous checking, yet when it comes to “free” news on the net or social media, we often don’t bother to raise an eyebrow or question sources. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s the effect of the spurious legitimacy of seeing something in print?
Never has the truth mattered more. With the rise of political populism, malignant mischief makers, frauds and fakers, truth has become a rare and invaluable commodity. The liars are becoming remote murderers. Thousands of Covid casualties have not received vaccinations because they believe the fake news surrounding their efficacy. This kind of misinformation is not entirely new: I recall when the proposal was made by Whitehall to introduce fluoride into the drinking water to help clear up Britain’s appalling dental health record, there was no shortage of figures who assured us that we would turn into grapefruits, or, more significantly, suffer erectile dysfunction.
There really are crazies out there who spend their time manipulating our political perceptions and understanding of the complexities of living in the 21st century. The growth in communications platforms has failed to enhance knowledge, but brought fear, doubt and constant anxiety to millions who do not see the 24 carat gold hidden inside reliable, tried and tested news sources.
We don’t buy a pound of apples if some of them are rotten, so why on earth do we not run a similar check on information. Apples are apples, but good information is knowledge and knowledge is power.
The writer was a Fleet Street reporter for six years and a BBC TV reporter for 40 years.