Faking the headlines

by Mark McGeoghegan
Brands & Media

Tackling fake news and disinformation

It’s only fitting that the last days of the Trump presidency were marred by a constant stream of disinformation, premature declarations of victory and false accusations of fraud. Twitter was forced to factcheck his tweets and TV news ceased transmission of his disinformation-laden press conferences, as armed Trump supporters surrounded vote counts and one man broke into a Nevada count to rant that the “Biden crime family is stealing the election”.

The election was another example of the very real threat disinformation poses to democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. As parliamentary reports tell us that because of ‘fake news’ the ‘very fabric of our democracy is threatened’,1 and that we are the target of ‘disinformation campaigns and political influence operations’, the focus on trust in media has intensified.2 How can we keep society on an even keel if we cannot agree on basic truths and share a common public square?

The past decade has seen the emergence of a cottage industry dedicated to prescribing actions that outlets and governments should take to arrest collapsing trust in media. But the debate over what businesses and governments should do misses half the equation – us, the consumers of media, and our crucial role in tackling fake news and disinformation.

How do we keep society on an even keel if we can’t agree on basic truths?

Britain’s trust in the media is falling

In general, do you think each is trustworthy or untrustworthy in Great Britain?

 

 

% trustworthy

Source
Ipsos Global Advisor

Base
October 2018, 1,558 GB adults aged 16-64; October 2019, 1,003 GB adults aged 16-64 adults

Most Britons are aware that they are being targeted with fake news and disinformation, including by other countries. Our confidence in both traditional and online media is low – fewer than one in ten believe the media is trustworthy, no more than trust social media.

But while we know fake news is an issue, and we don’t trust the media broadly, most of us think that fake news and disinformation is somebody else’s problem. We are more confident in our own ability to tell fact from fiction than in others’ ability to do likewise. We like to think that our preferred media sources are the trustworthy ones, and that they are easy to access – though most of us aren’t willing to pay for them.

People trust themselves to identify ‘fake’ news

% agree

Source
Ipsos Global Advisor

Base
1,000 GB adults aged 16-74, June 2020

We say we check our sources – but do we?

I make sure the news I read, watch or listen to comes from trustworthy sources

Source
Ipsos Global Advisor

Base
1,000 GB adults aged 16-74, June 2020

The Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area – is well documented, as are our common misperceptions of reality.3 Are we really able to tell real news from fake news, or do we merely seek out and ‘verify’ the news that accords with what we already ‘know’? It’s only human to confirm our biases and reject ideas that contradict them, but as a result we render ourselves progressively more vulnerable to accepting fake news and rejecting real news.

There is plenty that responsible media outlets and platforms can do to engender trust, but in an age of boundless media production, we cannot rely on them to verify every viral tweet, doctored image and propaganda post we encounter. While 78% of people globally want more regulation of social media,4 the efforts of Twitter and Facebook, even if too little too late for some people, have undoubtedly made a difference; the percentage of British people seeing fake news about COVID-19 fell from 46% to 27% over a six-month period this year. At the same time, our own media literacy will be key to establishing a media ecosystem we can rely on, building a public sphere we can inhabit together, and defining the truths we can share. The tools are there, it’s on us to start using them. It’s time to admit that fake news isn’t somebody else’s problem.

It’s only human to confirm our biases and reject ideas that contradict them

Mark McGeoghegan

Mark McGeoghegan

Research Manager