Fake news: the internet doom?

July 26, 2018

In early June 2018, two bills were discussed in depth but eventually not approved by the National Assembly in France. The debate has been postponed to July when it will no doubt continue to generate divergent views around the country. The topic? Fake news. It’s a subject that has indeed blossomed globally over the past few years in both conversations and the media.

Disinformation is not a new thing, if you think about it. Throughout history, people have generated rumours, altered pictures, spread urban myths. As far back as the 16th century, Italian writer Pietro Aretino allegedly wrote and spread poems in Rome to influence the election to the papacy.

People have always tried to influence their fellow citizens, usually to further their own interests. But for about two decades a new tool has made a tremendous difference: the internet. It potentially connects every single one of us and provides users with a voice on a greater scale than ever before. It is so critical that, since 2016, the UN has considered internet access a human right and forbids measures aiming to prevent or purposely disrupt information access or posting online. But, in my opinion every right comes with duty.

Working in PR, I am used to double checking a piece of information, or investigating its source to check legitimacy. Even if this takes time and is sometimes laborious, I think there are a few things that, as internet users, we should try to do:

  • go through the entire piece before sharing an article on social media (instead of just reading the title)
  • ask ourselves, who wrote/posted/shared it and why?
  • if the article appeared on our social feed because of an algorithm, why were we considered a ’target’ for this content?

It may seem trivial, but it is definitely not: according to an MIT study, false news on Twitter travels faster, with true stories taking six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people. Consequently, we should all feel responsible for what is happening on the internet and what news we decide to share or not.

Moreover, as professionals, our image and credibility can also be jeopardised by fake or unsubstantiated news and information from ill-judged sources. In the past, some French politicians have quoted articles from the humoristic publication-like website Le Gorafi, thinking it was factual media. As citizens, conspiracy theories and fake news can endanger scientific knowledge (the flat Earth theory is booming online right now), or even enhance hatred and compromise the wellbeing of communities (‘crisis actor’ conspiracy theorists bullying and stalking families on the internet).

The bills were eventually passed in the night between July 3rd and 4th. Now dubbed law “against the manipulation of information”, it will allow a candidate or a political party to go to court during an election period (up to three months before the ballot) in order to delete a fake news online. Also, digital platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, are now held responsible as they have some transparency duties regarding content posted for profit. But some voices are already arguing that the law is inapplicable, considering how fast information spreads online, or the fact that the information can be posted on foreign websites. Now, I guess we have to wait and see the next election to see how it goes.

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