Review: Is fake information destroying democracy?

SELHuG meeting, September 2020

This meeting was the first of our monthly meetings to be held following the lockdown caused by the Corona virus. It took place remotely online, using Zoom technology. The meeting host, managing the Zoom application, was Ann Pickering, Hester Brown was in the chair. There was a total of 14 participants.

Mike opened his talk by saying that the phenomenon of Fake News is both fascinating, because of the very many ways in which it occurs, and disturbing, because of the many ways it can harm us. Of these, perhaps the most dangerous is the threat it poses for the operation of a healthy democracy. Examples of this threat in today’s world include the degradation of constructive debate in US politics, the biassing of public opinion during the run up to the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the alleged meddling by the Russian government in the elections in Western countries. Suspect material and ill-informed opinion are drowning out accurate news and considered comment, and leaving people struggling to tell fact from fiction. Indeed, in this respect it is worrying that an increasing number of us are retreating into our own echo-chambers, preferring to rely on friends and social media for news and comment and for the confirmation of our opinions and prejudices. 

This situation would be bad enough if it were merely static. But it is violently dynamic. Internet use is growing exponentially and the impact of social media growing even faster. And information technology is having an ever wider impact due to the emergence of new kinds of applications such as facial recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

We live in a ‘post-truth’ world characterised by personal anxiety, fear-of-missing-out (FOMO), intolerance of others, and the growth of identity politics. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and increasingly easy to believe misleading and malicious stories. Bad news and lies travel faster than good news and truth, resulting in conspiracy theories and dangerous fashions such as the anti-vaccination movement.

The downside of these developments is extremely worrying but the good news is that thousands of agencies, institutions and organisations around the world are working to identify and expose misinformation and fake news and to prepare the public to deal with the consequences. They range from educational establishments promoting media literacy, critical thinking and quality journalism, to groups engaged in data analysis, website labelling or fact-checking, and software engineers working on cyber-security or forging tools to detect fraud or content tampering.

So what can we do, as individuals, to fight fake and limit its consequences? Mike said that the first step is to recognise that it is a social rather than a technological problem. We cannot fight it using the traditional weapons of the Humanist movement – credible evidence and rational argument. We must inform ourselves about the various ways in which fake news is presented so that we can recognise it more easily. We must also recognise that we are both victim and perpetrator – every time we share a post on FaceBook or ignore an untruth we run the risk of perpetuating or amplifying the problem. We can also support the quality press and bona fide organisations (like Wikipedia), and subscribe to national organisations that promote accurate reporting, science,  open rights and respect for human dignity, privacy and freedom of expression. As the distinguished political scientist Joseph Nye has written, ‘in the information age it’s not just whose army wins but whose story wins’. 

Several question were asked during the discussion that followed Mike’s presentation. These included:

  • How can the Humanist movement fight fake news? Mike replied that Humanist school speakers should emphasise the threat that fake news poses and the need to distinguish truth from falsehood when speaking to young people. He also suggested that individual Humanist groups might each pick a particular aspect of the fight and so develop a network of activists.
  • Is the impact of fake news generational? Mike agreed that the rate of transmission of fake news is probably greater within younger generations that older ones but he did not know whether the impact is necessarily greater.
  • Is Humanists UK organising a deliberate and coordinated response to fake news? Mike replied that he has repeatedly highlighted the risk and suggested that Humanists UK should adopt a position on fake news but to no avail – HUK has limited resources and other priorities.

In conclusion Hester said that it is only human to pay attention to information that interests us and supports our views and prejudices, but we should be more aware of our unconscious biasses and try to remain objective.

Much more information can be obtained from Mike’s website

Review by Tony Brewer, 7 September 2020