The following appeared as Michael's op-ed for The Guardian.
Good journalism is a vital part of our democracy. Our inquiry will look at false stories on the web and inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media
When the president-elect accuses US intelligence agencies of leaking lurid and unverified allegations about a Russian dossier on his private life, the global scale of the problem with fake news is clear. Donald Trump furiously denied the allegations to his 19.6 million followers on Twitter and at a press conference, condemning the leaks as something out of “Nazi Germany”. As the next leader of the free world, Trump has a powerful platform to rebut these salacious stories, apparently from a memo compiled by a former British intelligence officer. But even someone with views as unpalatable as Trump deserves to be scrutinised on the basis of truth and reality – not on fake news.
There is a clear duty on news organisations and journalists to make strenuous efforts to verify the information they receive to ensure it is accurate and to avoid the temptation to publish clickbait nonsense in a voracious quest for web traffic. It is not good enough to say we have serious doubts about this story, but we are going to publish it anyway.
Advances in technology and global communication, including how we consume news, have brought huge benefits. But they have also paved the way for fake news to become a worldwide problem. In America, we saw alarming attempts to influence the presidential election with hoax stories, among them the bogus claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump.
In Britain too, our politics risks becoming infected by this contagion. Rumours on social media can quickly get picked up by the mainstream media and given wider circulation without proper checks. We must not allow fake news to undermine our democracy or we risk the prospect of people’s political choices being formed on the basis of lies.
But the problem of fake news is not just about the damaging impact it can have on politics and democratic processes both here and abroad. It can also cause deep distress to individuals who find themselves the victims of these online make-up merchants and internet bullshit artists.
In December, England rugby star James Haskell became the latest famous name forced to deny that he was dead after fake news stories emerged on social media that he had died of a steroid overdose. It was left to Haskell to condemn the tales as “absolute rubbish”.
The authors of these fake news stories will probably never be discovered. But the way these stories swirl around the internet raises the question: what constitutes “news”? If a story is shared thousands of times, it can effectively be seen as news – regardless of whether it is based on truth or its provenance is clear – with the details, often unchecked, subsequently picked up by mainstream media. Even when a denial of the fake story is issued, it is often seen by far fewer people than the original tale which has done the damage.
The motivations of those behind these fake news stories are mixed. Some seek notoriety, while others are in it for the money by dragging clickbait traffic to their websites. For others, it is about promoting propaganda or deliberately creating false stories to damage those you wish to undermine.
But our determination to tackle fake news does not mean that we shouldn’t embrace the changes in the way people now consume news. Nor does it mean that we are against the increased plurality and independence from vested interests that the internet offers.
For too long, the way news is reported in Britain has been concentrated in the hands of those who run the mainstream media. The news agenda has been dominated by national newspapers, large sections of which are controlled by unaccountable billionaires. The explosion in the number of outlets means people have more choice than ever about how, when and from where they get their news.
The dominance of tech giants like Google and Facebook means they are often the gateway into accessing news material – something that gives them huge power over what we see. And with that power must come greater responsibility. It leaves the government facing similar policy challenges over plurality, ownership and potential monopolies that previous governments faced when newspapers were the dominant force.
The Labour party inquiry that I have been asked to lead will look at the changing ways that news is consumed and shared online, as well as the practical, political and ethical issues raised by fake news. It will examine what more social media and news websites could be doing to make sure readers see a wider variety of views, and whether they have a responsibility to prevent fake news stories being shared. The inquiry will also look at what online communities could do to help verify news stories and advise consumers of deliberate and malicious hoaxes. We plan to take evidence from a wide range of groups and compile a report later this year.
But in the course of this inquiry, we must reject the false choice offered by some that we can either look at fake news on the internet, or we can tackle inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media. This is not an “either/or”. And we must demand high standards in both.
We in the Labour party, who have so often been on the wrong side of misrepresentation and unfair attacks from the rightwing media, have a responsibility to be vigilant and reject fake news material on social media and elsewhere – even if it purports to come from the left. Everyone who wants to see honest and rigorous news reporting, proper fact-checking, investigative journalism and robust political debate also has an interest in fighting fake news. The only people who have anything to fear from this inquiry are those who are deliberately spreading stories they know to be untrue or those who are turning a blind eye to it.
We have a responsibility to stand up for good journalism everywhere. It is an essential part of our free speech and our democracy. The old adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes has never been more true. The growing risks posed to our democracy mean we can no longer ignore the threat from the proliferation of false news stories.