Joan Hoey is the editor of the Democracy Index at the Economist Intelligence Unit. That means she leads a team of people at The Economist who write about democracies all over the world.
Dear Burnet News Club members,
Thanks for the really great questions on the subject of democracy and fake news. They were thoughtful and clever. I’m impressed that they came from young people at primary and secondary school. So let me have a go at answering some of them.
How concerned should we be about fake news?
The Internet can be an easy vehicle for those who wish to spread fake news and that should concern all of us. In a democracy, informed citizens need to have access to news that is as honest as possible. However, the answer to the problem is not to ban or control the media: in a democracy we need to have access to a media that is free, sceptical of people in power, curious, has a range of opinions and is committed to providing us with all the information we need to make up our own minds about things.
Why has fake news become such a hot topic?
We should think sceptically about why the panic about fake news is happening now. After all, the news media has never been a pillar of truth and objectivity: biased coverage, propaganda and, yes, fake news, have been around for as long as we have had a free press. As for “alternative truths” in politics, politicians have always played fast and loose with the “facts” when it has suited them.
The fake news panic gathered pace after the Brexit and Trump votes in 2016. Those on the losing sides claim that the winners based their campaigns on lies and that voters were fooled by fake news. So there seems to be a political motivation behind the panic about fake news: instead of asking why they lost the argument, the losers prefer to call the winners as liars who deceived voters. Russia’s role in spreading fake news and meddling in the US election have been blamed for the victory of Donald Trump. However, opinion polls have shown that this had next to no influence on those who voted for Mr Trump.
Would we be living in a democracy if fake news was banned?
From: FloweryAngel | Elaine Primary Academy
We are replying to the opinion: the media are not important in democracy.
We believe that there are different sides in this opinion. For instance, if we didn’t have media, we wouldn’t know that Mrs May was going to have a general election or any other type of important news. This means that our country would be unable to support the choices for Britain.
On the other hand, rumours have been leaked on social media which, most of the time, are false. This may be an assumption but we understand that you should take things from media with a pinch of salt.
From: Flame_Rider, Pika2, EvaEvie, The Thinker and #CloudBurst28 | Napier Community Primary School
These questions get to the heart of the issue. From your questions and comments I got the impression that most of you believe that we cannot have a healthy democracy if we don’t have a free media. There is a big problem with allowing governments or officials to control the spreading of ideas, articles and news on the grounds that they aren’t “the truth”— because that suggests that those in power know exactly what “the truth” is. In a free society, however, people disagree about what is the truth and we need to have the freest possible media to help us debate and decide what is true and what kind of society we want to live in. We need to trust the people to make up their own minds.
What happens if we think that true news is fake news?
From: Lilyose | St Peter’s Primary School
This is a really great question because it shows that people can have different interpretations of the news according to their personal and political opinions. For example, somebody who does not like Donald Trump might have believed the story that appeared in Time magazine saying that a statue of Martin Luther King had been removed from the White House after Mr Trump was elected president. This is a case of fake news being viewed as true because the person’s political opinions led them to believe it was true. The story was false and was retracted by Time magazine.
This raises a very important issue about who decides what is true and what is false. The truth is not always obvious. Even reputable news organisations get things wrong. More importantly, however, facts and truth are not the same thing and nowhere is this more obvious than in politics. Politics is not about facts, it is about values and beliefs. In politics there are few black and white issues: the truth as seen by one person is often said to be false by someone else.
If people do not have the ability to spot fake news, shouldn’t this be taught in schools to support children in the future and ensure we stay living in a democracy?
From: Tiger’s humour | Elaine Primary Academy
In response to the fake news panic and pressure from the authorities, Facebook has decided to introduce a prompt at the top of users’ newsfeeds, offering ten tips on how to spot fake news. Facebook says that this is “an educational tool to help people spot fake news”. Google has also introduced a new product to help users to spot fake news. “Fact Check” will be available under Search and News and will supposedly help users to identify which news-checking organisations say are true. Both organisations seems to have a low opinion of their users and their ability to work out for themselves what is real and what is not when it comes to the news.
In a democracy we should trust people to be sceptical news audiences. To assume that some people will simply accept everything that they read or see in the media is patronising. Most people use common sense and are sceptical consumers of news. There is a danger that in allowing the authorities, including the government, to control what we read and watch we will end up with a less free media and new forms of censorship.
The answer to the problem of fake news is not more hand-holding by Facebook or Google or lessons in our schools about how to spot fake news. Schools have a role to play in teaching children to be open to new ideas, to be curious about the world and to sceptical thinkers. They should not be teaching children what to think, but rather how to question everything, including the most popular ideas of the day. If they do that job well, the will have played a vital role in developing a new generation of citizens who know that it is their job to read, search out and decide for themselves what they believe to be the truth. As one Burnet News discussion group said, social media may publish lots of fake news, “but we understand that you should take things from media with a pinch of salt”.