Check your source—the rise of social media and fake news

Check your source—the rise of social media and fake news

In a world where all our questions can be answered with a google search, it’s fast becoming hard to know what sources are reliable. Social media apps, are a current example of how technology has reshaped the way we receive news, facts and updates on current affairs. Just look at Snapchat’s discover page where you can find updates from outlets such as the daily mail, CNN, Yahoo news or even the BBC’s breaking news bulletins, which are delivered directly to your phone within seconds of an incident occurring. In the latest fake news scandal the Guardian reported on a case where a woman diagnosed with breast cancer began searching for information around her illness online, only to be faced with 'unscientific' and 'frequently dangerous' misinformation.

In this fast-paced world, where we can easily reach information from millions of sources and news websites, we question what are the dangers of ‘fake news’ and how can we be sure something is reliable?

What is ‘fake news’?

Fake news can be defined under two categories, as explained by Adelaide Lopez, solicitor at Wiggin LLP, in Fact, fiction and fake news—exploring the impact of fake news. The first being false or inaccurate stories usually circulated to further a political or social agenda and the second accurate news reporting mischaracterised information because someone disagrees with or dislikes the content. One of the highest profile cases of fake news, which would fall under the second category of the definition, would refer to Donald Trump and his administration. He declared, for example that ‘long established and credible news outlets such as the New York Times are peddling “fake news” about his administration’s ties with Russia”.

What are the main problems, wrongly sourced or fake news can cause?

There are many issues that can arise from this ever-present issue of fake news. A few examples may include:

  • with a wide variety of information available, the public are turning to the internet to find experts—especially those in the legal profession. However ‘fake news’ posted about your firm, has the potentially to be hugely detrimental, reducing the trust of your existing and potential new customers
  • fake news stories often are more attractive to the public eye, meaning they attract high traction, being ‘liked’, viewed and re-shared more frequently. This, coupled with a growing distrust of mainstream media, means it can be harder for these newly formed opinions to be changed
  • experts are regularly using the internet to help them in their field, so fake news could be detrimental to their practice, company and clients. For example, if a legal professional were to discover incorrect information during the research phase and use this in any aspect of the case, the consequences could be unforgiving
  • with a society that values free speech, expression and the freedom of the press—rights that are all protected under Human Rights Laws—it can be very difficult to regulate fake news, the challenge being removal of this ‘news’ may be breaching human rights

What can the law do?

In terms of regulation, Adelaide Lopez, notes that: ‘legitimate news organisations, such as The Times and Channel 4, are already subject to regulations that would prevent the publication of “fake news”.’ For example, UK print media, uses the self-regulating body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Broadcast media outlets are in turn, regulated by Ofcom, which operates under a number of Acts of Parliament, including the Communications Act 2003.

Social media sites and other online news platforms are themselves protected by legislation in the EU. For example, EU, Regulation 19 of the E-Commerce Regulations 2002 SI 2002/2013, provides that where the site is storing information provided by a recipient of the service and in doing so is only passively providing the opportunity for publication (eg the comments section to a news article) and provides a notice and takedown procedure, it will not be liable for postings made on the site absent notification. However, with the upcoming Brexit vote, these regulations may have to be readdressed for those in the UK.

Adelaide believes that along-side media outlets regulating their sources, the government should be, among other things:

  • educating users to detect ‘fake news’ and the very real dangers of spreading it, and
  • going after the system that makes the business of ‘fake news’ possible by making social media, and other sites circulating ‘fake news’, responsible for the better-quality control of the ‘news’ made available through their site

In addressing the above, the government’s Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the regulation of fake news, of which its final report ‘Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report’ is to be released on 18/02/2018.

With the government due to release the final fake news report, we hope to have more clarity on this going forward; but for now, the challenge of dealing with the rise and potential impact of fake news is something that isn’t going away and all legal professionals should be aware of.

Updated on 17/07/2019.

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About the author:

Hannah is one of the Future of Law blog’s digital and technical editors. She graduated from Northumbria University with a degree in History and Politics and previously freelanced for News UK, before working as a senior news editor for LexisNexis.