Fake news – it’s your fault

If you keep clicking on clickbait, sharing without checking and liking stories that match your own prejudices and pre-conceived ideas then you are responsible for fake news.

You are funding those who make money from advertising linked to it. And that is fundamentally why there is so much fake news. The unscrupulous can make more money from adverts linked to fake news than publishers can on real news sites.

Click, Like, Share. And fake news is YOUR fault.

Fake news in the headlines

headline: Britain demands Russian apology for fake new
Fake News newspaper headline

Fake news is not new, and nor are allegations that the Russians were responsible for it.

Newspaper cutting
Chicago Daily Tribune 8 December 1932

Brexit fake news

The focus has been on how the Leave campaign lied in the 2016 referendum – the £350m a week on the side of a bus – and how fake news helped secure the leave vote.

Leave were found guilty of lying, said they were going to appeal and then dropped their appeal. There is a general acceptance that Leave lied and that Leave created and shared fake news to win.

So I am going to briefly touch on how Remain also lied and how remainers share fake news still.

I am not taking sides. But the focus has so far been on how Leave lied and relied on fake news. For balance, I want to show you Remainers did, and do, create, share and promote fake news too.

The EU as the guardian of everything

Britain Stronger in Europe leaflet on workers' rights
Leaflet suggests The EU gave these workers’ rights and they will be lost if the UK leaves

This, and several others produced by Remain trade unions, claimed many of the UK’s most progressive laws were down to the EU and would lost as soon as we withdrew. Equal pay and health and safety were two.

Equal Pay act 1970

Let’s deal with equal pay. The easiest way is for you to watch the film Made in Dagenham.

Made in Dagenham poster
Made in Dagenham: film of the trade union struggle for equal pay

It’s about a strike by machinists in 1968 who sewed the car seats in the most popular cars of the day. The ended up forcing Barbara Castle to introduce the Equal Pay act, which came into force in 1970.

As the film reminds us at the end, this was the first equal pay act anywhere in the world and was rapidly followed by similar legislation around the world. That was before we had even joined the then EEC.

Health and safety legislation

Now let’s look at health and safety legislation. Look at the amount of legislation passed before we were even in the EEC.

And the EEC had no role in setting or monitoring any social policy until the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty when the EU was formed in 1993 – and the UK opted out of that until 1997.

  • Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act 1956
  • Offices Act 1960
  • Factories Act 1961
  • Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963
  • Construction (Working Places) Regulations 1966
  • Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969
  • Fire Precautions Act 1971
  • UK joined the EEC 1973
  • All UK laws amalgamated into the H&S at Work act 1974
  • Referendum of staying in the EEC 1975
  • Maastricht Treaty created the EU 1993 (UK opted out of Social Chapter until 1997)

If you ask anyone in the EU, they’ll tell you that the lead body pushing for higher health and safety standards across the EU has been the UK. The idea that the UK has only adopted health and safety laws because of the EU is fake news. It’s a lie.

All these things were hard won by trade unions.

I don’t believe it

When you point this out to people, they argue that a British Tory government could easily rescind all this legislation. The EU could too.

When you point this out, they respond that it is more likely that the a British Tory government would rescind it than the EU. You can’t win.

You will have seen similar arguments with leavers refusing to accept inconvenient facts.

Basically, you cannot argue with either side in the Brexit debate using facts. Because if the facts don’t fit with their pre-conceived and entrenched views they just ignore those facts. And what is a fact?

Two million march for a people’s vote

Tweet with frozen video
Tweet claiming two million people marched for a people’s vote

This claim appeared a lot after the Peoples’ Vote march on 23 March. The organisers claimed one million marchers, but soon after, this claim – that the police had said it was two million – was all over Twitter.

The police said no such thing. Not ever. It is fake news.

Look at the video image. This was a BBC video from a helicopter of the entire length of the march. It was much more crowded than this in many places, but look at how spaced out the protesters are here. This will be important over the next couple of slides. (Web users can click on the image to see the tweet and watch the video)

Our prejudices are hard-Wired

Wired magazine is a technology and science magazine for nerds. It looked into the science behind calculating crowds.

Screengrab of Wired Magazine
Wired – click on the image to open up the article

Here is the entire length of the march.

Map of London
The march route marked out in yellow dots

Wired reported that you can get between two and four people per square metre in a moving crowd. It becomes hard to move if you any closer together than that.

Look around you. Imagine four of you within one square metre. I am not particularly big or strong or muscly, but my shoulders are more than 50cm across. If someone the same size as me stood next to me, that would be more than a metre. That gives you some idea.

I think four friends standing together on a march might fit in a metre squared but you wouldn’t want to be that close to strangers if trying to walk.

And in that video still we saw earlier, there is no way people were packed four to a square metre, was there?

So Wired did the sums. They didn’t just do them on their own. They got a professor of crowd science to calculate the likely crowd size.

  • Two to four people standing per square metre
  • 312,000 to 624,000 people possible
  • Manchester Metropolitan University’s professor of crowd science, Keith Still, estimated 312,000 to 400,000

At most the march had 400,000 protesters, not one million and certainly not two million.

Truth is hard to comprehend

It is really hard to accept this kind of evidence-based reporting when it contradicts what you felt, what you experienced and what you so want to believe.

I know. I marched in the 1980s against nuclear weapons, for the miners and against apartheid. On 19 October 1985, thousands of us blocked the road outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar square demandng Nelson Mandela be released from prison.

There were thousands of us. I was there. I was arrested. The police surrounded us and arrested every single one of us.

I’ve looked it up since. The police arrested 322 people. There weren’t thousands of us.

I’ve shown this Wired research to people who were on the Peoples’ Vote march and, despite the evidence, they just dismiss it.

Attack and denial

People dismiss facts they don’t like as a conspiracy. The right-wing dismiss facts they dislike as being from loony lefties and ‘so-called experts’, while the left dismiss uncomfortable facts as coming from right-wingers, fascists and their current favourite, ‘Zionists’.

The Met Police stated that there were nearly 2 million people in the People's Vote March last Saturday. Full Fact are a far right wing group masquerading as something else
Click on image to see the Tweet

Full Fact is not a right-wing organisation. In fact, arch-Remainer, the Harry Potter author JK Rowling, used Full Fact to check the leave campaign claims during the referendum in 2016.

Fact checked information on the EU referendum (i.e., independent of either campaign):
Click on image to see actual Tweet

It’s the economy – stupid

To understand why fake news works so well you need to understand how the economics of advertising work. Here’s how the media used to work.

  • Nobody ever paid for news – only distribution
  • Advertising paid for news
  • The product was the circulation list
  • Content helped maintain that circulation list
  • Retaining an audience means telling them what they want to hear: what they like, enjoy, feel safe with, but also what they hate or fear
  • You choose an echo chamber in terms of soundbites, but also visuals – people who look like you

There is no point in telling people things they don’t want to hear. They will simply cease reading you and you will lose advertising revenue. This is how the economics of news works  – or doesn’t work.

Advertising spend = power

  • Content run because advertisers want it
  • Content not run if unflattering to advertisers
  • Highest payer secures most prominence
  • Demand for adverts on front page
  • Threats to withdraw advertising
  • Advertisers get publishers to sack editors

I even made Private Eye’s Street of Shame when I was sacked for upsetting an advertiser.

Private Eye cutting about Chris being sacked
From Private Eye, July 2001

The insurance company that got me sacked went bust and its boss, Michael Bright, was jailed for seven years for fraud. I got to go on live radio and call him a liar, a bully and a tyrant.

So did we write fake news? – we had to. Libel laws prevented up from writing the full story. Commercial pressure prevented us being too critical. And journalists have deadlines. The story you see is everything they knew, could prove and were permitted by law or advertising pressure to print at that print in time. There may be more information – even some that entirely contradicts what you are reading – later.

So that’s advertising on the good old days before the internet.

Online advertising

Advertising hasn’t changed but advertisers now have more choice about where they place their ads and at what price. They can get just as much visibility – or even more – on cheaper web platforms than they could from newspaper and magazines.

The truth is often uncomfortable and unpleasant, making it less popular. Fewer clicks generates less income. Stories that titillate, scare, and confirm prejudices earn more money. The system is broken.

  • Anyone can secure advertising revenue
  • Hit-based, page views/impressions not click-throughs
  • Adverts automatically served up
  • Advertisers not choosing the content or website on which their ads appear
  • Most popular sites attract the most advertising (circulation lists no longer key)

The BBC reported in 2016 that one small city in Macedonia was making a small fortune from producing fake news stories.

Popular content

Advertising now goes to wherever the most popular sites are, with the story subjects that grab the most attention and get the most shares. These include:

  • Celebrity
  • Sex
  • Scandal
  • Obscure/weird
  • Causes outrage
  • Provokes a reaction
  • Panders to pre-existing prejudice
  • Makes you feel more intelligent

Who has ever done a quiz, found the easy and got all the answers right despite being told only 10% of people can answer all these questions?

Who has ever clicked something that said “you won’t believe what happened next…” and found that what happened next was entirely believable and exactly what you would have expected to happen next?

Who has ever shared something online without checking first if it could be proven and verified by a reliable source?

If you have, then fake news is your fault.

Leveson and Wikipedia

You are in good company if you have shared fake news. Some of Wikipedia is great, but Wikipedia can be changed easily, in error by the ignorant, deliberately by those with an agenda or fabricated by mischief makers.

Lord Leveson carried out a review of the poor practices of the British Press. And yet, in his report, he cut and pasted from Wikipedia information about how the The Independent newspaper had been founded. And it was wrong.

For a laugh, somebody had changed the entry to claim themselves as one of the founders. Leveson – in a report into how badly the press behaved – simply cut and pasted this without checking.

What can you do?

Check – put the call in. Ask, tweet, challenge, turn up to meetings, email, write, call.

  • Pay for news
  • Seek out alternative points of view
  • Read/view/listen to what makes you uncomfortable
  • Check/verify before sharing, liking, reposting (Snopes, Full Fact, original sources)
  • Use social media to query and question
  • Challenge friends and family over fake news
  •  

Snopes ended its contract with an advertising vendor and that firm refused to permit Snopes to put any other advertising on its site. Facing ruin, Snopes Started a Go fund me page asking for $10. I gave £50 at once because Snopes is so useful. So did many others. In one day Snopes raised more than £500,000.

In conclusion

  • If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem
  • If you are not tackling fake news, then you get the news you deserve
  • If you are sharing unchecked, unverified, untrustworthy news, then fake news is your fault

You can stop fake news. All of you can. But if you don’t, fake news is your fault.

NB: This was a presentation given at the London Academy of Excellence/TEAM Global event on 4 April 2019.

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