Fake news: our duty to warn

Professor Bob Usherwood is a VLV Trustee and former Professor of Librarianship at the University of Sheffield. Here he looks at the use of the term "Fake News" and how it's the duty of every VLV member to warn of its danger.


The use of the term “Fake News” increased by 365% in 2017 according to the publishers of Collins Dictionary who named it their ‘Word of the Year’. But what does it mean? There is a problem of definition. Collins defines it as: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. However, President Trump who claims to have invented the phrase(He didn’t) regularly cites quality and trusted broadcasters such as the BBC or CNN as purveyors of fake news. 

That is probably not the opinion of many VLV members but as Professor Julian Petley pointed out, when writing about attacks on the BBC, “we have been faced with the unedifying spectacle of some of the worst newspapers in the world constantly attacking one of the most nationally and internationally respected broadcasting organisations.” (Petley 2011). Such action is not limited to the Murdoch press but this means there are people in the country who will share Trump’s view.

The recent vote in the House of Lords asking the Government to keep its promise to complete the Leveson Inquiry is a relevant and in many ways a promising development but, as with their attacks on the BBC, sections of the UK press are “cranking up the disinformation” (Cathcart 2018). The newly appointed Culture Secretary, Matthew Hancock, described this as a vote “to restrict press freedoms [and] ... undermine high quality journalism.” In fact, it would help sustain high quality journalism and the only ‘freedom’ it restricts is the freedom to fake the news or, as we used to say, tell lies.

As our recent history indicates, exacerbated by and increasingly published by social media sites, fake news can lead to actions. Hate speech becomes ‘acceptable’ and democracy is liable to be corrupted. This raises challenges and opportunities not only for broadcasters and journalists, but for the concerned citizens of a democratic society. VLV members and others who have specialist areas of expertise could all have a part to play in limiting the damage. Collective action is more likely to gain attention and we should co-operate with arts organisations, community workers, educators, human rights organisations, library and information professionals, museum workers and many others.

For example, library and information professionals across the world have developed interesting programmes and initiatives. The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) has developed an infographic (left) on how to spot fake news. It has been translated into 37 languages, and reported on CNN International. 

BBC local radio stations, like public libraries, are  trusted organisations and still an integral part of their local communities. They have some, but not enough, staff with the skills required to help the public identify trustworthy sources of information. Poorly funded local radio stations and savagely-cut, volunteer-dominated library services are not capable of providing adequate instruction in media literacy. For these and other reasons we need to work with others with similar values and concerns.

Fake news “blurs the lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies” (Levine 2017) and few who work in the media, the information professions, the arts and related activities would want to censor their output or collections to the extent that users never had access to fiction or lies. After all, to quote Camus, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth". Think of Cathy Come Home, Boys from the Blackstuff and, currently, McMafia. What broadcasters,  librarians, and others can and should do is educate people so they are aware of what is likely to be true or false.

In the United States psychiatrists and mental health experts concerned by The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump have considered embracing their ‘duty to warn’ “at times of danger... not only sounding an alarm but [by] continually educating and engaging in a dialogue our fellow human beings." (Lee 2017) That is a role that every VLV member could undertake. 

The huge growth in fake news means that we live in “times of danger”. As supporters of an organisation that champions “excellence and diversity in broadcasting” our ‘duty to warn’ is equally clear.

Published by: VLV

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