RSS executive director Hetan Shah explores the concepts of 'post-truth' and 'fake news' and what can be done to improve the quality of public debate in this forthcoming UK election and beyond.
We are apparently in a world of post-truth. The election of President Trump across the pond, and EU referendum campaign have convinced many that truth is under attack in a way never seen before. What does this all mean for the unexpected General Election campaign we are now in?
The House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee was concerned enough to have opened an inquiry into ‘fake news’. However, as statisticians well know, this is not a new phenomenon: propaganda and spin are ever-present dangers in politics. The Royal Statistical Society’s (RSS) concern about how to improve the use of facts and evidence in public debate began well before the recent interest in this problem.
The debate in the run-up to the EU referendum particularly led to concerns that we are in a post-truth age. The claim by the Leave campaign that we pay £350 million a week to the EU, which the independent UK Statistics Authority debunked and called misleading, has become a poster child for post-truth politics.
But the referendum is better understood as a special case, rather than representative of daily life in the UK. Referenda are subject to weaker regulation than elections and campaigns are not running for election, where the electorate can hold them to account afterwards. Perhaps for both these reasons the EU referendum campaign left 52 per cent of voters feeling it was not conducted in a ‘fair and balanced way’.
One thing that is new, of course, is social media, which has taken a lot of the blame for the post-truth phenomenon. In particular, platforms such as Facebook have made it is very profitable to make up news stories.
This has proven irresistible to people with no particular interest in the content of the stories they write beyond that they are profitable. Macedonian teenagers, for example, who built pro-Trump news websites found themselves earning $1,000 a month in a country with an average monthly salary of $371.
But fake news is nothing new. In 1835 an American newspaper published a story that claimed an astronomer had found life on the moon. The story went ‘viral’ and within a month was being published in Europe. Newspapers profited from headlines that today we would call 'clickbait'. The incentive structures are recognisable in today’s social media.
Social media are also blamed for creating echo chambers where we hear only our pre-existing views repeated to us. This could make us more credulous of stories that are not based in fact. However we have always had our echo chambers in the analogue world. After all, the Guardian and Daily Mail speak to their own converted audiences.
So post-truth and fake news are less new than might at first meet the eye. There was no truth era before the post-truth one. But this is not to say there isn’t a problem.
What can be done to improve the use of facts in this election? Social media giants clearly have a role to play. They have been reluctant, but are starting to grapple with the issue. Fundamentally, they are coming to terms with becoming so powerful that they are not just platforms, but publishers, and thus have some editorial function.
Facebook has started flagging stories that are disputed by factcheckers. Google has stopped ad revenue flowing to some fake news sites. Germany is developing laws to fine social networks that do not delete fake news. This may work when it is clear what is true and untrue, but it will probably also create many cases on the edge.
Academics can play an important role in getting the facts out in this election, but few tend to do so successfully. You need to be prepared to put your head above the parapet, respond in a timely fashion, speak a language that people understand, and not go beyond your expertise. It’s a tricky balance, but hugely rewarding.
Independent fact checkers can help. But they suffer a free-rider problem: everyone likes the idea, but nobody wants to pay for what they provide. Foundations and philanthropists need to step in and put money behind them. It is good to see that the BBC has set up its own internal ‘Reality Check’ team.
And yet, even facts in themselves are not enough. There are concerns that telling people the facts can just reinforce their existing views; the so-called ‘backfire effect’. Promising new research by Sander van der Linden and colleagues suggests, however, that we can inoculate the public against misinformation by giving information about the methods through which the facts are obscured or denied alongside giving facts themselves.
Ultimately, we need a citizenry that has access to tools of self-defence against mistruth and that cares about the quality of news it consumes. Learned societies have a role to play in reaching out beyond their traditional audiences. For example. the RSS has developed free statistical training for journalists and politicians to help improve the debate. We have also hosted public debates about key social issues such as ‘the facts about migration’.
We should explore new ways of promoting critical thinking, statistical literacy and a curious mindset among people young and old. As is so often the case, technical and policy fixes can only take us so far; education is the only sustainable answer to this major societal issue.
A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight and Research Professional.
Read our submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s ‘Fake news’ inquiry (PDF)
The RSS will be hosting two events discussing the issue of post-truth: 'Has the post-truth era killed our chance of having an election based on facts and stats?' at the British Academy in London on Monday 22 May, and 'Post-truth II: What is it and what can we do about it?' which will take place Newport on 12 July.