Getting real to the problem of “fake news”
Between February and November last year, “fake news” stories on Facebook got 8.7 million likes, shares and comments or other form of engagement. The alarming bit is that “real news” only got 7.3 million interactions (Kate Shanahan “Give young people the tools to fight back against fake news” The Irish Times, 23/2/17)
Another study by Stanford University on young people and news concluded that the social media generation cannot distinguish between what is true and untrue online.
Taken together these findings paint a stark picture of the challenges facing us all.
Thankfully though, while these challenges will not be easily or quickly beaten, there are some heartening trends emerging.
A welcome development is that, since the start of March, Facebook has started labelling stories from “fake news” sites. These stories will be labelled as disputed. It will also be easier for end-users to report fake news.
It’s also welcome news that, prompted by advertisers’ actions, Google has changed its ad policy, giving more power back to advertisers over what content their ads are linked to.
Added to these positive trends though are some serious matters that need addressing at a national level.
A key consideration is education. It has a big role to play in ensuring people have the skills to filter the information they receive on a daily basis, including “fake news”. In that regard, the BAI’s recent initiative on promoting media literacy is to be welcomed. I know this is something that the Public Relations Institute of Ireland is keen to support.
Funding of the media is also crucial and quality journalism needs to be paid for. There is certainly a very necessary role for sufficient funding of public service broadcasting. While I remain unconvinced by RTE Director General Dee Laffan’s calls recently for increases in the TV licence fee, there is merit in the state and taxpayers both supporting quality public service broadcasting.
Thankfully Ireland’s PR industry has taken a strong line in the debate over whether social media influencers should declare when they have been paid to endorse a product or service. Last year it took a very public line, asking for stronger policing of this area. This includes promotion to members of our code of engagement with social media influencers.
By ensuring influencers, who hold an increasing amount of persuading power with consumers, are honest about payments they’ve received for endorsements, it will be easier for consumers to discern where the truth in the news really is.
So, while “fake news” poses a real threat there are reasons for optimism.