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?”

Has the digital technology revolution blurred the line between fact and fiction?

With the UK General election voting underway and numerous claims that ‘fake news’ stories influenced the results in the US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum in the backdrop, one wonders why fake news has grown so rapidly in the last few years.

The past

Before the Internet, publishing fake news and gaining an audience was nearly impossible, as the large scale distribution of information was prohibitively expensive. Using information to influence public opinion and perception was therefore a privilege for a few big key players who had the resources to publish information that could reach the public.

Gaining and, most importantly, retaining public trust was also essential for surviving in the publishing world at the time. Losing that trust by reporting a bogus story could damage a writer’s or an organisation’s reputation and lead to grave financial consequences. Having fewer platforms for publishing that information also meant that it was more likely that key players would abide by media law and they were more easily regulated.

The present

Although the growth of the internet and use of social media has undoubtedly had some positive impact on our lives, the digital technology revolution, including the creation of online publishing platforms such as WordPress, which allows anyone to create a website easily, has led to ‘fake news’ stories spreading faster across the world. With more people publishing than ever, information can now be made accessible online to millions of people, quickly and for nearly no cost. Given the lower cost, the use of pseudonyms and usernames, the writer’s reputation has also become more expendable.

Due to the large number of people creating and passing information online, it has also become impossible to regulate the information disseminated in full. As a result of the absence of robust laws or regulations to combat ‘fake news’, the online advertising industry has made ‘fake news’ lucrative. We have seen numerous opportunists publishing fake stories to attract more hits to their websites and therefore increase their revenue through online advertising. A man running several fake news websites told the US National Public Radio that ‘fake news’ made him US$10,000 to US$30,000 a month.

Fake news stories are also easier to create. According to a BBC article “…the truth is hard, expensive and boring. Whereas lies are easy, cheap and thrilling.” Carrying out detailed research to find out the truth and then verifying it takes time and effort, which cost money. With no obstacles to intentionally publishing false statements of fact, fake stories have therefore thrived.

With fake news regularly on our screens and front pages, we have a choice to make: do we simply accept ‘fake news’ as collateral damage of this ‘new industrial revolution’, or is it time for the government to legislate to combat fake news?