Titled ‘An Oxford Conversation about the impact of fake news on our lives’, the panel consisted of Sir Simon Stevens (Chief Executive of NHS England) and Damian Collins MP (former Chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee), the discussion led by Sarah Montague (Presenter of BBC Radio 4’s World at One).
Introducing the evening, Professor Sir Rory Collins, Head of Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, explained that the reason the Department was putting on an event about what is typically regarded as a ‘media’ question was because he had become deeply concerned about the effect of powerful online disinformation on public health.
‘Fake news affects the health of people,’ he said, citing two central recent UK examples, one being ‘anti-vaxers’ (anti-vaccine proponents) whose dubious advice to not vaccinate babies against measles has led to a resurgence of the disease in the UK and elsewhere.
Another case involves misinformation around the side-effects of taking statins. Persuading people not to take them has probably led to some of them having heart attacks and strokes.
The report by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, Rory Collins described as ‘a cracker’ and well worth a read.
The report paints a bleak picture of the ways that Facebook and other social media platforms are involved in the spread of disinformation in their pursuit of profits.
Damian Collins argued that ‘freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom of reach.’ He argued for a legal requirement to reveal authorship of online posting, but also a more powerful digital mechanism to stem the otherwise wildfire-like spread of sometimes wildly false information.
The MP argued for the creation of a Regulatory Body to hold social media platforms to account, the equivalent bodies already in existence in France and Germany, he noted.
Later in the evening a show of hands found a large majority in favour of such a body, although of the handful of individuals who were against, legitimate points were raised.
What is evidently false at a given point in time might later be overturned in legitimate ways, especially where science is concerned.
The panel contended that what they principally meant was demonstrable falsehood that currently whirls around the internet unchecked.
So-called ‘deep fake’ films were cited. This is where, for example, a public figure like former US president Barrack Obama has been manipulated in a video to appear to say with force of conviction and free volition, words that were originally said by President Bush. Such pure falsehoods should be removed without hesitation, argued the panel.
A regulatory body would not be a censor, but would set a legal framework compelling the platforms to act or face penalties.
Broadly, both speakers were insistent that the simplest regulatory mechanisms that govern other walks of life from medicine to banking remain almost entirely absent from social media. Almost inevitably, they contend, this has to end.
Otherwise, they argued, an entire legal duty of care is basically delegated to for-profit corporations like Facebook.
During the conversation Sarah Montague asked Damian Collins what was the worst he had seen compiling his report. He replied that it was evidence that the persecution and ethnic slaughter of the Rohinga people of Myanmar was organised with impunity on Facebook, and that Facebook refused to do anything about it.
Sir Simon noted that if you search ‘anti-vaccine’ on Amazon, you currently get a top ten books that are all basically untrue or at the very best highly dubious, sometimes self-published. There has been a boom in on-line publishing around anti-vaxer themes despite the fact that one of the original sources of the idea, Andrew Wakefield, was struck off the medical register.
The point was made along the way that the very term ‘fake news’ is of course a shorthand with various meanings attached.
When US President Donald Trump helped to popularise it, he typically meant anything in the media he disagreed with. But for the purpose of the Oxford debate it referred to proven falsehoods masquerading as truth or pitched at unsuspecting audiences in calculated ways so as to deliberately sow seeds of doubt.
In the latter scenario, a personal opinion of a real person that might be superficially persuasive but demonstrably wrong, can be lofted up into the Twittersphere and given a whole new life by malevolent actors such as state-backed agents paid to meddle, plus automated ‘bots’ that search key words and then bombard social media platforms with re-tweets and other forms of perverse dissemination.
Damian Collins described the Brexit referendum as ‘the petri dish of the US election’ that elected Trump, and the broader theme of democracy at risk was discussed in respect of free speech and credibility, one of the ultimate questions being how publics are protected from misinformation by serving politicians.