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‘We are being fed a diet of filth and twaddle’ — but top journalists say it’s education, not law, that will tackle fake news

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Big names in media, including Wikipedia’s head honcho, debate misinformation scandal

More law and regulation is the “last thing” the world needs in the fight against ‘fake news’. That’s the message coming from some of the top names in the media, who gathered in Whitehall alongside lawyers, politicians and researchers to discuss what one panellist called the “emergency” misinformation epidemic.

David Engel, head of Addleshaw Goddard’s reputation & information protection team, described the problem starkly. “On the one hand you have powerful companies like Facebook making lots of money in advertising revenue, and on the other hand members of the public with very little trust of the content on these platforms,” he said. Nic Newman, a researcher at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, noted just 40% of people broadly say they trust the media.

The two are linked, suggests the Westminster Policy Forum’s star booking for last week’s event: Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia.

“The ad-only business model”, which has also been adopted by various non-paywalled news websites, has been “extremely destructive for journalism” — him awkwardly mentioning the Mail Online‘s “sidebar of shame” while I sat next to a Mail Online journalist.

He explained his company has steered away from using advertising because it wants to remain as neutral as possible, and to ensure users could browse encyclopaedia topics freely without being lured to content about cheap dental treatments and the like.

Jimmy Wales speaking at last week’s event

While major social media sites continue to generate more in advertising revenue than the GDP of Dubai, then “it is time for them to take responsibility for the content that creates the profit for them”, said Engel.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem websites are doing that. Engel, who has been practising for more than 20 years, recalls trying to contact Twitter last week on behalf of a client concerned about a fake account they’d seen. “Try finding a switchboard number for Twitter!” he challenged. “It’s certainly not on their website. It’s very difficult to contact Twitter apart from through their online forms.”

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel” to help alleviate this problem, says Engel — just having clearly-displayed contact details would be a start. But where the solution doesn’t lie is in more law and regulation, other figures speaking at the event concluded.

This was certainly the opinion of Mick Hume, the editor-at-large at Spiked.

“There are more people being arrested and punished for what they say and think now than since the 18th century”, he said, referring to the recent “ridiculous” case of YouTuber Mark Meechan who was fined £800 after he taught his girlfriend’s pug to give a Nazi-esque salute. Judges, then, are already being asked to make difficult decisions about online conduct, and he fears we’d slip deeper into Orwellianism if they were also made “gatekeepers” of fake news.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

Ian Murray, the executive director of the Society of Editors, also had concerns about heaping law onto the problem. Speaking just weeks after Malaysia criminalised spreading fake news, which is now punishable by a maximum of six years’ imprisonment, he said:

“Who is going to decide what counts as fake news and that someone should be sent off to jail for it?”

Both he and Hume think more law is “the last thing we need”. Of course, the internet is hardly a law-free zone. Fake information posted online that amounts to fraud, a threat or racism may be actionable in the criminal courts, while there are civil laws covering defamation.

That’s not to say the panellists don’t think fake news is a serious problem: Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, described the situation as an “emergency” in which “our children are being fed a diet of filth and twaddle”; PR hotshot and author Mark Borkowski said the “continual erosion of [news] standards” is a “plague”.

The solution, for many people speaking at the event, lies not in law but in education.

Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at LSE, proposed putting lessons in media literacy on the national curriculum, following a similar initiative being piloted in Italy. This would, hopefully, teach children to think more critically about the news articles they read, instead of mindlessly sharing.

But will these classes be taken seriously when taught alongside more traditional subjects like maths and English? (Let’s face it, some people can be a bit snooty about media studies.) Livingstone responded: “The media is becoming the lens through which we learn everything about society” including politics, health, science, education and the environment — this should be studied and not dismissed as a “Mickey mouse” subject.

Though education and empowerment was a strong theme throughout the four-hour conference, which was chaired by Lord Inglewood and Lord Black of Brentwood, Byrne was sceptical. “If I was beaten up on the street, you could try and teach me how not to be beaten up. But I’d rather you arrested the person who beat me up,” she said.

The onus should lie on the social media sites themselves, she said. The panellists shared plenty of ideas about how we could progress here: introducing tighter controls on adverts that masquerade as news; taking down content faster when rules are breached; and adopting an industry ‘traffic light’ rating awarded to news sites based on their reliability and how they use data.

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17 Comments

Does not know Katie King

“referring to the recent “ridiculous” case of YouTuber Mark Meechan who was fined £800 after he taught his girlfriend’s pug to give a Nazi-esque salute”

Yeah, OK, but here’s a quote from the sentencing comments, which are publicly available and which you probably should have read:

“The centrepiece of your video consists of you repeating the phrase “Gas the Jews” over and over again as a command to a dog which then reacts. Sometimes the phrase is “You want to Gas the Jews”. You recite “Gas the Jews” in a variety of dramatic ways. “Gas the Jews” in one form or another is repeated by you 23 times within a few minutes. You use the command Sieg Heil, having trained the dog to raise its paw in response and the video shows a clip of a Nuremberg rally and a flashing image of Hitler with strident music. You say the video was only intended as a joke to upset your girlfriend, whose dog you used, and nothing more.

On the whole evidence, including your own, applying the law as made by Parliament and interpreted by the most senior courts in this land, I found it proved that the video you posted, using a public communications network, was grossly offensive and contained menacing, anti-Semitic and racist material.”

The prosecution was not primarily about the dog salute, despite what Dankula and various other tossers are claiming. Re-publishing Hume’s take on the case, which without context looks pretty inaccurate, ain’t a great look.

(10)(5)

Corbyn. Symphathiser

Well said.

(7)(1)

Not Amused

Quite.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

See Jonathan Pie’s video on this.

(11)(0)

Peter Griffin

🎼 It’s a wonderful day for pie! 🎶

(1)(1)

Corbyn. Symphathiser

Out of curiousity, is there anyone I can ask about this, Mr. Griffin?

(1)(0)

Just Anonymous

I was rather struck by this passage from the sentencing comments:

“The fact that you claim in the video, and elsewhere, that the video was intended only to annoy your girlfriend and as a joke and that you did not intend to be racist is of little assistance to you. A joke can be grossly offensive. A racist joke or a grossly offensive video does not lose its racist or grossly offensive quality merely because the maker asserts he only wanted to get a laugh”

This analysis is wrong. It has to be wrong. If a communication, objectively constructed, is a joke (albeit possibly one in poor taste) then that is surely a relevant matter affecting the context of said communication. Thus, it must be wrong to say that being a joke is never relevant. I was going to post authority to support the proposition that context matters, but I actually don’t need to: the judge said in the same sentencing comments: “I must … [take] account of context and the relevant circumstances…” I agree, but I think he failed to properly follow his own direction.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not positively arguing that Meechan’s conviction was wrong. I have not seen the video – I therefore cannot judge it. (I also note the judge’s apparent alternative finding that the video was not a joke in any event). However, my point is simply that the reasoning above cannot stand.

(8)(1)

Ciaran Goggins

Meechan is an idiot. The Alison Chabloz verdict is up soon, worth looking at. Oh and quoting Jimmy Wales? Loses you all credibility.

(0)(0)

Trumpenkrieg

I think she loses all credibility by embedding her own tweets.

Lack of self awareness much?

(3)(6)

Corbyn. Sympathiser

I agree with you for once, wank stain.

(1)(0)

Fake News

Meghan Markle pictured topless on yacht off the coast of Saint-Tropez. The internet is losing its sh*t.

(2)(0)

Trumpenkrieg

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Oh the saggy image. Why oh why.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

You don’t need a mink coat to be a balla

(0)(0)

Fenchurch Street

SwagDonalds my brother. Swaggy meal.

(0)(0)

US FIRM TRAINEE

The firm canteen’s lunchtime specials often make me shoot out flaming coils of shit out of my ass hole.

I’m obviously not alone as the bogs regularly experience a cacophony of bowel movements from a number of fee earners.

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