‘Fake news’ is a term thrown around by many, including the sitting president of the United States of America. It is used as an offensive weapon to degrade the integrity of major mainstream media sources, and as such, provided a ripe topic of discussion at the Edinburgh International TV Festival.
Both a dedicated panel hosted by Channel 4 anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy and his colleague Jon Snow’s dignified MacTaggart lecture explored the systemic issues damaging the information economy – and what the tech giants can do to clamp down on these issues.
Below are a few choice quotes from expert speakers at the festival, on the issue and potentially, the solution.
Jamie Angus, deputy director BBC World Service Group
There are three categories of fake news – a clickbait operation that is ad fraud, secondly there is an argument whether political advocacy and opinion is news or not… and the third category is the most pernicious: state-backed activity designed with a particularly malign intent to manipulate usually elections but often other inter-group conflicts, ethnic troubles.
The BBC has moved a lot of resources into slow news and Reality Check and digital brands that really double down on fact checking and calling out the real facts behind political arguments. The reason we doing that is we listened very carefully to criticisms from audiences, a lot of this predates the Brexit and independence referendum.
There is a caricature of news reporting that is ‘Campaign A says that, Campaign B says that, who knows who is right, only time will tell.’ That is the parody. Audiences told us very clearly that they saw a bit too much of this, they wanted us to be more bold in calling out the facts.
Tony Maddox, executive vice president managing director CNN International
There are two ways in which [president Donald Trump’s] claims of fake news are impactful.
In terms of reinforcing the prejudices of the base and people who genuinely don’t like mainstream media, it has put some wind in their sails, but if you look at the alternative, the groups that Trump has primarily targeted CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert, every one of those has seen quite a remarkable growth in their viewing and sales figures.
Being called out by Trump is not the end of the world… Trump is good for business, has it impacted our performance? No, it has been enhanced.
Versha Sharma, managing editor and senior correspondent NowThis
Trump has rendered the phrase [fake news] meaningless; he calls things he doesn’t like “fake news” and his supporters and his apologists do the same, so while we can talk industry wide, when you are talking about the broader American public we have people shouting at us at a Trump rally, we have people shouting at us that we are the enemy.
There are people harassing and threatening and sometimes assaulting reporters because they believe we are fake news.
Damian Collins, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee
What President Trump is doing is feeding the idea that there is only opinion and no raw fact and hard news, and we have to fight back against that. We have to use the tools the digital companies could make available if they chose to.
There is a responsibility for companies like Google and Facebook, they face that responsibility when it comes to the distribution of pirated content online, cyber bullying and illicit material, they understand they have a social obligation to do it. It is a form of virality based around news stories, they can spot it, identify stories that could be fake and check and challenge them, act against them and delist them.
Sites like Facebook are run on the basis of user referral, when they get user referral or complaints are they acting against them and the sources of them and if not, they are in breach of their own guidelines? We then have to think about what the sanctions would be against a company that knowingly allows and profits from the distribution of fake news, this is something that we will look at in our enquiry.
You can’t have someone in the Home Office like the Lord Chamberlain rubber stamping news articles saying that they are true but what we should say to platforms and news companies is that if you are not acting against sources of fake news you know are untrue is there a sanction against you?
Jon Snow, presenter and reporter at Channel 4 News
For us at Channel 4 News [Facebook] has been invaluable in helping us to deliver our remit – to reach young viewers, to innovate, and to get attention for some of the world’s most important stories.
But the other side of the issue – the dark, cancerous side – Facebook enabled the story: “Pope endorses Trump for President” to engage more than a million people during the US Elections.
That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale.
Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality.It is fundamental to our democracy. Facebook’s lack of activity in this regard could prove a vast threat to democracy.
Rather than simply trying to take down the fakery, there has to be an incentive for Facebook to pay the rate for high quality news and encourage the development of a global bedrock of truths rooted in their offer to the quarter of the world’s online audience.
Indeed when you read Zuckerberg’s manifesto for the future he seems to think Facebook will invent and establish quality journalism. There is no need to Mr Zuckerberg. It already exists, independent of Facebook.
[Less than a day after Snow made this plea, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform will include a new tab to help drive media subscriptions and help monetise their instant articles].