Can fake news be beaten?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a huge surge in fake news, from rumours to full-blown conspiracy theories. It’s something that many social entrepreneurs are tackling, and one that The New Ism will explore as part of our conversations for a better global system.

Alex Matthews: Social entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and his organisation Wikipedia have been playing a very active role in the fight against fake news, particularly during the pandemic. Wikipedia has partnered with the World Health Organization to create a channel of trusted, trustworthy information about Covid-19. Furthermore, Jimmy has created WT Social, a new social network which focuses on the positive aspects of social media, removing what – and who – makes other networks so toxic, particularly fake news. Users can edit any posts that contain fake news, and any ‘bad actors’ who are pushing conspiracy theories can be pushed off the platform permanently. It’s really interesting that Wikipedia is pushing this agenda – fake news is a real plague of our times and has started to affect all levels of society. I wonder how we could address this at The New Ism. 

Mel Young: I have huge respect for Jimmy Wales. We wrote about him in our new book. He created Wikipedia as a free, open-source encyclopedia for the web which millions of people use; he could have made a huge amount of money from it but chose to keep it free to use and, crucially, free of advertising. He understands that people want fairness, but the global news agenda is often hijacked by dangerous conspiracies which are in turn amplified by the so-called established media. I am pleased that he is getting involved in this space, particularly during the pandemic when we all need clear information. For The New Ism, this area is vital. If we are to create new systems then we need to have constructive debates based on real information rather than falsehoods. In that way, we will move forward. 

AM: It also brings up the issue of trust, which we have discussed at some length in previous blogs and on the podcast. So many people have very little trust in governments and leaders, which leaves space for fake news and conspiracies to grow. If people trusted the government, they wouldn’t believe that the vaccination would potentially harm them or was a way for Bill Gates to microchip us all… But there is no trust, so these theories propagate. It would be interesting to know if conspiracy theories are as entrenched in countries where trust in government is higher, for example in the Nordics. 

The way to create trust is to be open and honest and to engage in open debate, and unfortunately that is where many leaders fail – they evade questions, they deny their mistakes and they go back on their word. 

MY: The issue of trust comes up often in our discussions. Politics seemed to have descended into the lowest common denominator of a kind of reality show with political parties more concerned with what they look like on television rather than concentrating on the substance of issues. But the media also creates this lack of trust. They want drama and tension and they are all desperate for content. A great way to increase content is by creating drama around conspiracy theories, which is totally irresponsible. Media people will shrug their shoulders and say ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ but actually, the messenger has become the problem. This is why I like Jimmy Wales’s initiative: it takes this notion on and asks people to buy into and participate in genuine debate.

AM: Yes, and I also like that he is creating a ‘kinder’ social network. Social media is responsible for the spread of so much fake news, largely because they view themselves as technology, rather than publishers. Recent developments in American politics have seen Twitter and Facebook take a firmer stand, blocking people who they accuse of spreading toxic messaging – which takes them into publisher territory. But they still have a long way to go and I think that’s why WT Social is so exciting, because it’s starting from the right place, working to combat fake news from the start. 

What do you think The New Ism’s role could or should be in this area? How do we create a new system which has trust at its centre, therefore removing the fuel from the conspiracy theories that are so common today?

MY: That’s such a good question, Alex. It runs to the heart of what we are trying to do. When we say that we need new systems, we mean that we need to look at the value base behind those new systems. Trust has to be at the centre. So, we have to open this area up for discussion and debate – I’d be keen to hear what young people say. Do we bring in media regulation, for example, but possibly ban free speech in the process? Do we demand control on media ownership? How do we create a political system where people trust politicians as we move away from tribal populist politics? I know I am not answering your question, but your questions beg more questions, and we need to answer them all. We need to hear constructive suggestions.

AM: I agree – these are all really complex, knotty issues that we would have to get to the bottom of for a better new system. They are definitely issues that we will be raising through the podcast, through panels and in our blogs over the next few years, and it will be important to have other voices, especially those of young people, to help us to define how we move forward. Coming soon so keep an eye out for news on our next steps to creating this platform! 

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