Fake News: Real Legal Issues or simply a great title for a competition?

18 May 2017

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?'

The concept of ‘fake news’ isn’t new.  Gossip, conjecture, rumours, mis-information, alternative facts or just plain lies; they are all potentially false statements of fact which have been disseminated for centuries through many different mediums.

But more recently ‘fake news’ has evolved from its literary origin to a widely criticised internet phenomenon.

The issue has come to the fore in recent months in headlines that alleged fiction and propaganda in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election.  On 17 February 2017 at his first press conference as President, Donald Trump launched the term ‘fake news’ onto the centre stage by pointing at a CNN reporter and shouting "You are fake news!"  The US administration has also branded the New York Times and the BBC with the phrase, and has been calling out other major media outlets several times a week for being ‘fake news.’  The term has now made its way across the pond and is now being used by British politicians.

Bending the truth for political gain is nothing new, but why are politicians now using the term ‘fake news’ so frequently?  Where did the expression even come from? And how has this spiralled from a seemingly straightforward concept into incessant tweets and accusations by some of the most powerful people in the world?

Before the arrival of the internet, publishing fake news to a wide audience was nearly impossible.  In the past, concerns regarding news focussed on traditional media (typically newspapers and broadcasters) and the role they played in curating and controlling public information and sentiment. In recent months, the focus has shifted to the distribution of news on the internet and social media and the so-called ‘fake news’ problem.

Has the social media revolution eroded the traditional barriers to creating ‘fake news’?  As people can now exchange information on a worldwide platform, it could be argued that Facebook and Twitter provide fertile grounds for the growth of ‘fake news’.

Even if this is the case, is ‘fake news’ actually influential and can people distinguish it from the truth?  Recent surveys suggest that 62% of social media users obtain their news from sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  With this in mind, should social media sites take responsibility for the news they publish?  Facebook has come under criticism for its role in the spread of ‘fake news’, particularly in the run up to the recent US election.  Although Mark Zuckerberg initially stated that Facebook had no role in the spread of ‘fake news’ and deemed it a ‘crazy idea’, Facebook is now putting in place measures to combat the distribution of false information.

Over the coming months we will consider the above questions.  Through a series of blogs and comments, we will highlight recent examples of ‘fake news’, evaluate the existing legal framework, and discuss some of the legal issues surrounding this fast-evolving topic.

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