Why we have Trump to thank for raising awareness of fake news – and how newspapers are fighting back

Here are words I never expected to write: thank you Donald Trump.

Here are words I never expected to write: thank you Donald Trump. No, I’m not joking. During the US presidential election campaign, he raised public consciousness about “fake news” by referring continually to its pernicious existence.

As we know, he stretched the meaning of what constitutes fakery to the point of absurdity, but that’s beside the point. Essentially, what Trump did was to put both the theory and practice of “fake news” on the map. People suddenly realised that what they were being told might not, after all, be true.

Over the past nine months or so, those two words have gradually become a common catchphrase, a part of the everyday dialogue between people trying to come to terms with what they are reading, seeing and hearing.

This increasing public concern offers traditional news organisations a wonderful opportunity to halt the march of social media. Aware that Facebook, Twitter and their ilk have an Achilles heel they must attack it by wielding the sword of truth.

Trust lies, or should lie, at the heart of the relationship between news providers and their audiences. And now is the time to make that count, to publicise the fact that mainstream media in Britain, whether broadcasters or the press, are more trustworthy than unregulated online platforms.

Yes, most national newspapers are politically partisan. But they must comply with the law (which social media users often do not) and the great majority of them also accept the strictures of the Editors’ Code of Practice (which is built around a commitment to accuracy).

Yet newspapers, despite a widespread public misconception about their omnipotence, have found it difficult to get this positive message across. The paradoxical result: newspapers have always had a bad press. They have tended to ignore criticism they regard as ill-informed, not least because journalists are aware that it has a long history.

In my young reporting days, I lost count of the doorstep conversations that began with a diatribe about newspapers making things up and telling lies. When asked for evidence, the best (or worst) most of these critics could offer concerned the odd mistake over a name or address.

That was a quarter of a century before the creation of an ethical code of conduct, which has been responsible for improving editorial standards. Not that the detractors would agree, of course, because prejudice about “the press” runs deep.

At last, however, there are signs of a counter attack, at least at local level. Regional press publishers are making a concerted effort to repudiate critics by asserting the virtues of newspapers compared to the vices of social media.

In the run-up to the June 8 general election, they have signed up to a campaign called Fighting Fake News. Their announcement was accompanied by a lengthy mission statement in which they stress their independence and pledge “to report and explain the [election] issues in an entirely neutral, honest and balanced way”.

Their concern about “the phenomenon of fake news" is aired in the context of “entirely fabricated information designed to deceive” which has been “circulated indiscriminately via social media”.

The statement refers to the range of fake news, from the “deliberately and maliciously contrived” stuff to the more common form of unsubstantiated rumours, noting that it is all “hard to identify”. It goes on to take “the great global social media conglomerates” to task for being too slow to respond and then “grudging to intervene”.

This initiative would benefit from being adopted by the entire industry as part of a strategic fightback against the failure of the social media organisations to get to grips with their publication of fake news.

Come to think of it, the government – when the new one is finally elected – should be encouraged to get involved too. It has happened elsewhere.

In January, the Czech government reacted to the false use of footage on Facebook, which was designed to incite racial hatred, by setting up the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats. Its 15-strong unit seeks to identify fake news and then rebut it.

From next year, children in Swedish schools will have lessons in how to differentiate news emanating from reliable and unreliable sources. In neighbouring Norway, three of its biggest competing media companies agreed to set up a fact-checking unit, known as Faktisk, in order to combat fake news.

This followed the creation of the BBC’s innovative Reality Check, a team which the corporation’s head of news, James Harding, said in January was aimed at “weighing in on the battle over lies, distortions and exaggerations”.

He pledged at the time to work with Facebook in order to deal with “deliberately misleading stories masquerading as news”. For its part, Facebook has begun to take the matter seriously after years in which it argued that it could do nothing.

Pressure from several authorities have forced Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to change his tune. In Germany, his company felt it necessary to enlist a non-profit online researcher, Correctiv, to investigate user complaints and, significantly, to identify the offenders.

I had been expecting a similar unit to be formed in the UK following the launch in January of a fake news investigation by MPs on the culture media and sport select committee. That was suspended once parliament was dissolved for the election.

But its intention, part of which concerned the impact of fake news on democracy, was sound. The committee chairman, Damian Collins, was right in saying that fake news “undermines confidence in the media” and I hope he and his colleagues will resume their inquiry.

It is time for mainstream media, which has been routinely derided by the online community throughout the past decade or so, to go on the offensive. Newspapers must put trust at the heart of their USP, unique selling point.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*