‘Fake news’ is a confusing and misleading phrase. Here’s why we think everyone should stop using it now.
The problem with ‘fake news’
The term is so broad that it obstructs us in addressing the various issues involved. ‘Fake news’ has been used to describe a range of issues, from the use of unaccountable targeted advertising to alleged Russian interference in democracy, which might have wildly different motivations and implications.
Without knowing what we’re talking about, we can’t hope to know how to respond. If everything from shoplifting to murder was referred to as ‘crime’ in court, how would a judge ever know what sentence to give?
But also, the phrase is increasingly being weaponised by those in positions of power as a means to discredit criticism from journalists or to attack political opponents.
Why this matters now
Today, the European Commission is holding the first of a series of meetings bringing together experts from around the EU to talk about ‘fake news’ and what initiatives can be harnessed to help tackle it. This is part of a series of work that includes a consultation asking for the public’s views.
Tomorrow, a committee of MPs in the UK will be taking evidence from experts as part of their Parliamentary inquiry into ‘fake news’.
We are contributing to both the European Commission and UK Parliament inquiries.
Politicians need to recognise the risk that their reaction to ‘fake news’ could cause more harm than the problem they are trying to solve. That is why we need to be absolutely clear on what the issues are before we try to find solutions.
If the problem is state-sponsored disinformation that might suggest one set of solutions. If it’s attempts to distort elections by targeted online advertising there are different issues in play.
The vague, catch-all term of ‘fake news’ is now a barrier to solving the real problems around misinformation and it’s time we all dropped it.