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The Times/Kingsley Napley Student Advocacy Competition 2017 launched on 18 May 2017. The title this year is “Do we need new laws to combat fake news?”
“Woman Arrested for Defacating on Boss’ Desk After Winning the Lottery” “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America” “Drugs In Colorado: Deadly New Strain Of Marijuana Turning Users Gay” “FBI Agent Suspected in Hilary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” “Rage Against the Machine to Reunite and Release Anti-Donald Trump Album”
All of the headlines above have made front page news across a number of online publications, collectively receiving over 4 million shares, comments and reactions by Facebook readers. And they’re all fake news stories.
This week President Trump continued flame-throwing tweets, leading Twitter’s trending topics with a fake word, rather than fake news - "Despite the constant negative press covfefe", he tweeted in the late hours of Wednesday. The internet lit up with bogus definitions of the ‘covfefe’ and a mock Google translation of the word from Russian into English as "I resign" soon appeared.
But the word is obviously nonsense. The President had simply made a typo and online commentary was merely satirical. As the boundary between fake news, satire and real news is now a vast grey cyberspace, can readers spot fictional stories and distinguish them from the truth?
Hilary Clinton doesn’t seem to think so. Speaking at a technology conference in Los Angeles this week, she said hoaxes and false news stories on Facebook contributed to her loss in last year's US presidential election. Describing the publication of fake news as the "weaponisation of technology", Clinton accused her opponents of delivering false stories in order to sway public opinion against her. She also claimed that the "vast majority" of news items that appeared on social networks about her were fake, leaving readers unable to set these apart from the truth.
Recent surveys appear to support her sentiment. In December 2016, an Ipsos poll for Buzzfeed News found that 75% of American adults who were familiar with a fake news headline viewed the story as accurate. In particular, one made-up story - “Donald Trump Sent His Own Plane to Transport 200 Stranded Marines” - was viewed as accurate by 84% of respondents.
A more recent US survey carried out in March 2017 found that 56% of children aged between 10 and 18 could not tell the difference between fake news and real news, and over 30% of those surveyed had shared inaccurate news stories online.
It also appears that we in the UK aren’t as adept at recognising fake stories as we might believe. In February 2017, a YouGov survey of 1,684 UK adults who were shown six individual news stories, three of which were true and three of which were fake, found that only 4% of respondents could accurately distinguish fake news; 49% of all respondents thought at least one of the fake stories was true.
In setting fact apart from fiction, we must challenge what we read both online and in the press. Although the younger generation are more web savvy than many adults, it is important that they are educated to be media savvy. A number of counties have already recognised this - in the Czech Republic, high schools are teaching teens to identify propaganda; in Sweden, students as young as 10 are schooled on how to consume news; and in Pennsylvania, one state lawmaker is pushing for mandatory media literacy classes in all public schools. There is a degree of intellect required to distinguish fake news from the truth. Tru dat bro, like innit yo. Is that the problem, or do we need legislation to combat fake news?
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