The Times/Kingsley Napley Student Advocacy Competition 2017 launched on 18 May 2017. The title this year is:

'Do we need new laws to combat fake news?'

‘Fake news’ is not an objective. It is a means to an end, a tactic used in order to achieve an objective. These objectives are generally said to be political, social and economic. Over the following three weeks we will take each of these areas and look at the impact that ‘fake news’ has on each.

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They are the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” This quote was attributed to Donald Trump during his Presidential campaign, allegedly coming out of an interview with People Magazine in 1998. However, it is completely fabricated and is a typical example of a ‘fake news’ story being used to polarise voters in this era of ‘post-truth’ politics.

Over the past year, the term ‘fake news’ has dominated headlines, tweets and Facebook feeds. In its various forms of disinformation, propaganda and hoaxes, it has been increasingly used to affect public opinion showing that it is ultimately a political issue.

The most common political objective of recent ‘fake news’ has been to manipulate elections and referendums through the spread of fabricated stories. In the UK, there is great concern about the impact that false information had on the outcome of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. There is equal concern in the US regarding the impact fake news had on securing Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, and on the on-going probe into his alleged collusion with Russia.

Quantifying the tangible impact that fabricated news stories have had on voters presents a particular challenge. Fake news stories are spread through social media sites on users’ news feeds, and enter the ‘echo chamber’ where they are shared exponentially amongst users’ friends. Measuring the impact of these fake news stories is impossible as they are circulated through private feeds and there is no definitive data available to show how fake news has affected recent elections and the wider political landscape.

In the US, fake news in its purest form has come to dominate political debate. Stories with no basis of fact have gained headlines across social media outlets, such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” A recent survey by Stanford University found that in the lead-up to the recent election, fake news was heavily tilted in favour of Donald Trump with 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories that were shared a total of 7.6 million times. With this in mind, it is a widely held view that Donald Trump would not have been elected president were it not for the influence of fake news.

President Obama has also publically stated that he considers fake news stories have had a substantial impact. In November 2016 at a press conference in Germany, he slammed fake news for eroding democracy – “If we are not serious about the facts and what's true and what's not, particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

In the UK, our political arena has historically been reported through a network of highly-partisan media outlets. Political fake news reported in different UK newspapers have aligned with the extremes of their political spectrum, and so the UK public is used to various news corporations bending the truth to suit their different political agendas. But in the months before the Brexit referendum, we were bombarded with false fake news stories causing justified confusion amongst many voters. Vote Leave’s campaign on immigration has been labelled as ‘Project Fear’, with Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster showing a queue of migrants purportedly trying to enter Britain. However, in reality, these were migrants at the Croatia-Slovenia border over 1,000 miles away who had nothing to do with UK immigration. Vote Leave then broke the ultimate piece of ‘fake news’, claiming that leaving would provide a £350m-a-week bonus for the NHS. We can now see that this is never going to happen.

As more and more ‘fake news’ stories are bubbling up, the task of distinguishing the truth falls on the us, the audience. On 14 November 2011 at the opening of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, Sir Brian Leveson QC said, ’The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us.’ Although the Inquiry specifically dealt with the press rather than online media, it is a pertinent quote when considering how we should tackle the ‘fake news’ crisis.