Lack of social media regulation blamed for rise of fake news

31 May 2019 6 min. read

As a wave of hard right politics continues to sweep across the globe, many cite fake news spread by uncritical social media users as a key component of this spike in populism. As a result, a new study has found that 35% of people in the UK believe the Government should draft new rules to crack down on social media networks spreading false information .

Fake news generally refers to journalistic stories that confirm false or inaccurate information, intentionally or otherwise. The rise of the fake news phenomenon is often credited contributing to the success of a new wave of hard-right populism that has taken root in global politics, weaponising fabricated bulletins to whip up negative sentiment that could be turned into electoral capital.

Now, a new report from OC&C Strategy Consultants has found significant generational and political gaps in opinion regarding fake news. While the report found that there is a cross-generational gap in the UK and US and cross-political concern about fake news and media bias, the left and right of the political spectrum have different assumptions regarding its rise.

Most famously, the term was deployed by US President Donald Trump. Though the term came to prominence to describe falsehoods spread by his election campaign, Trump weaponised the term to discredit the opinions of opponents and critics. This may well be part of the reason that those on the left in America are less likely to say that fake news exists than their conservative counterparts. With Trump’s rise to power having hinged largely on claims that a liberal elite monopolised the media to keep certain billionaires from office, only 3% of the American right do not believe in fake news, compared to 17% of the left.

How concerned are you about the rise of fake news and the impact it may have

The outlook is very different in the UK, due to the dynamics of the nation’s politics at present. The right has adopted Trump’s mantra (only 3% do not believe in fake news), while the left in the UK is slightly less inclined to believe in fake news (6% don't believe it). Illustrating why this might be, a study into alleged bias of televisual news coverage from the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck University of London found broadcast news gave double the airtime to critics of Corbyn than those supportive of him.

Digital journalism

Thanks to the rise of this fake news moment, online journalists face an uphill battle to be taken as credible sources. Last year, Reuters Institute research revealed that 23% of online news is accessed through social media, compared to 32% directly visiting sites, and 25% using search engines, while only 24% of respondents said they believed sites like Facebook and Twitter do enough to separate fact from fiction. 

According to OC&C’s study, respondents on both sides of the Atlantic expect social media platforms to do more to take responsibility and combat fake news. When asked what they blamed fake news on, the largest number of respondents in the UK said Facebook, followed by users creating fake content. In the US, content creators and Facebook also featured in the top three factors, alongside those sharing that content uncritically.

When it comes to how to deal with fake news, UK and US respondents disagreed on the level of involvement regulators should have. In the UK, 35% thought the Government should draft new rules to crack down on social media networks spreading false information, while in the US – where many respondents actually blamed the Government for fake news – 22% said ultimate responsibility resides with the individual user. In both countries, however, respondents were keenest to say that social media platforms should take more responsibility for tackling fake news, while a more honest traditional leader was lower on the agenda.

What should be done to deal with fake news?

Just 13% in the US and 7% of UK respondents said the media should openly state how they are factually correct. While the idea of fast-spreading fake news on social networks is undoubtedly troubling then, this illustrates how it is all too easy to fall into a trap of implying traditional media outlets produce the gospel truth, in comparison to their digital counterparts. History is littered with mass media conglomerates spreading disinformation – but without the instantaneous potential for fact-checking, or the forum for mass criticism that the internet provides.

Historic issue

To this end, a 2017 study from KPMG found that, due to this instant capacity for scrutiny, those who obtained news from the internet were far more critical consumers of any information they came across. While 17% said they would trust social media as a source of reporting, a far larger 46% expressed concern about the accuracy of content they encountered through the medium. Comparatively, print newspapers, which were read by 42% of under-35s and 60% of older consumers, boasted a much higher trust rating of 46% and 25%, respectively.

The Murdoch-owned News of the World (now the Sunday edition of the Sun) was infamously implicated in the cover-up of police culpability during the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, while the Daily Mirror’s then-editor Piers Morgan was forced to resign for his paper’s part in falsifying Iraq war photography in 2004. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, has obtained such a reputation for inaccuracy that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently claimed they had “mastered the art” of fake news. All three papers were also implicated in a phone-hacking scandal in 2011, which led to the famous Leveson Inquiry.

Considering the largest portion of all generations across both the US and UK get their news via specific sites, rather than social media, links and their newsfeeds, it is clear that social media is just the tip of the iceberg. While it might feel cathartic to give them a kicking, tackling the likes of Facebook without looking into the sources of news, including established brands, will do little to genuinely tackle the fake news phenomenon.