Tom Watson, authorised by nothing more than his moment in the sun (no pun intended) questioning the evil one Rupert Murdoch live on TV at the DCMS select committee, has decided that he shall be the investigator of fake news. Caped-up, psyched-up and, obviously, well caked-up, Watson and his trusted side-kick Michael Dugher intend to save us all from having our defenceless minds being infiltrated, infested and assimilated by dastardly wrongdoers telling us stuff that isn’t true.
How could we survive without this superhero twosome? Personally, I believe everything I read, just like everyone else does. No-one has any concept of satire or mock-taking or story-telling or wit or sarcasm or mischievousness. We have no imagination and always assume everyone who writes something has no imagination. Of course, that is all sarcasm. I made it up. But, the deeply-dippy duo Watson and Dugher are unable to accept that almost all people are intelligent and experienced enough to spot “fake” news instantaneously.
An ingrained facet of elitist politics, part nature, part nurture, is to choose to assume that the majority of the public, an other to the elite’s elevated existence, are neither bright nor discerning. We are denied the capacity to make informed, logical decisions. We must be led and that means we must be protected. That is, censorship. Fake news, heavily biased opinion presented as news and rabble-rousing articles have been part of civilised society for centuries. The consumption of it has always been optional, and its distance from truth and facts has always been clear. No-one needs to be protected.
The aforesaid pompous pair are committed to their crusade. A synopsis of the scope of their inquiry into fake news is here: Watson Fake News Inquiry. The wording of the intent of the inquiry needs examination and response. (Quotes from the synopsis are in italics.)
“It will ask if social media platforms could, or should, take steps to ensure users are exposed to a greater diversity of views, and whether they have a responsibility to prevent fabricated content being widely shared.”
Yes, that is an exact word-for-word quote of Tom Watson, Labour MP, and not a memo from the office of Erdogan or Jung-Un. It should always, without exception, be the user’s choice how great a diversity of views that she or he encounters. It could be the entire range of political views or it could be a single rigidly defined political view. It is the choice of the person using the social media platform and should never be restricted or controlled by an arbitrary spurious authority, whether that is the platform host or a politician. For Watson to ask that the owners of a platform decide what is fabricated news, and what is not, is to assign a heap of power to an entity that cannot be trusted with it. The power of that decision should be left to the user.
“It (the enquiry) will explore whether they (social media platforms) can make editorial decisions without being accused of political bias.”
They cannot do that, and nor can Tom Watson. Every word spoken or written about politics is partly informed by bias, as it should be. The user’s own bias will determine what she or he chooses to read. No third party should interfere with that choice.
The remainder of the inquiry abstract is a series of questions to which Watson suggests people can provide answers as contributions to the inquiry. All the questions are wordy: Watson is keen to direct the thought-process of the respondents so that each question is answered subject to a myriad of presumptions.
“What distinctions should we make between “fake news”, “clickbait” and sloppy or inaccurate journalism?“
Is Watson asking the respondents to define what they think “fake news” is? If so, why does he suggest exclusions. If he is requesting a definition of “fake news” why is he holding an “inquiry” into “fake news?” Surely, it is incorrect nomenclature to describe a process as an inquiry if the topic being inquired into isn’t even defined? As an aside, if, for example, I encountered an imaginative article on, say, Progress Online website that wholly misrepresented the views or actions of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would that be “fake news”, “clickbait” or “sloppy and inaccurate journalism?”
“What are the financial and other incentives in creating “fake news” and how might these be reduced or removed?“
This is an odd question because most people who write like to get paid for it, and most websites seek income of some sort.
“What is the role of social media “gatekeepers” such as Facebook and Twitter in creating so-called “filter bubbles” in which the news material people see all comes from the same political perspective, and in skewing people’s news consumption in the direction of sources which are more partisan and/or less reliable?“
There is so much direction in this question. Two gross assumptions are made in the question in order to direct the respondent into answering within boundaries declared by Watson. First, the word “gatekeepers” ascribes power to the platforms that users should not recognise. All social media platforms, however they may have been designed, are used how the users wish to use them. The only restrictions should be functionality, that is, technical restrictions. Watson, however, wants to infuse the perspective that the platforms are moral and ethical guardians. The second gross assumption that Watson makes is, as noted earlier, that he posits as undesirable that some users only encounter political views similar to those they hold. It is the user’s choice. It is neither good nor bad if a user wishes to only see similar political views to her or his own.
“Could social media companies do more to ensure that news material shared on their platforms is reliable, or to make it easier for unreliable material to be flagged as such or removed? Could users be given more power to fact-check and/or raise concerns about fake news?“
Watson suggests that social media companies can decide on the reliability of news. There is absolutely no reason why any such company is more able to do that than any user of its platform. Users fact-check content all the time; they do not need “power to fact-check” as that means giving some users power on what other users can read.
“Could social media companies do more to ensure that users see more balanced news material, and if so is this desirable?“
This is definitely not desirable. Watson is persisting with his theme of presenting the social media companies as having the sense to make decisions that he feels the user cannot make.
“What role can/should search engines play in checking the reliability of news-related material and should reliability play a role in prominence in search results?“
Watson thinks search engines can have some ultra level of common sense that we mere users cannot attain.
“How have changes in the way the public consumes news, especially the rise of social media, affected the way news is covered by journalists?“
A simple forced assumption made here: The question doesn’t ask if journalists methods have been affected by social media, it just states they have been. Clearly, any lack of quality in journalism is the fault of journalists and their employers; to blame social media is to excuse poor journalism.
“What impact are declining sales and advertising revenues having on the ability of news organisations to invest in journalism, and on the quality and range of news coverage?“
More blame attached to social media: Watson suggests that the future of journalism is at stake.
“What are the values reflected in the editorial and community standards required by social media platforms, and what is the relationship of those standards with the regulatory environment around UK press and broadcast media?“
The values named above are whatever the users of a particular platform decide they will be as said values develop over time determined by how users behave and use the platform. There should not be any relationship between social media “values” and any regulations for press and broadcast media. Juxtaposing those two concepts is no more useful than asking if every social verbal conversation should abide by, say, parliamentary rules. It is insidious of Watson to offer this juxtaposition as a possibility to be considered.
“How can we encourage media consumers to think critically about the reliability of the news sources they read and share?“
This is such an offensively condescending question. Watson’s contempt for the intelligence, reason and cognitive abilities of the public is glaring in its pomposity and peremptory superciliousness.
“What is the role of education in promoting critical thinking and media literacy, and who can play a part in this?“
I am sure that “critical thinking” is a module of many educational courses. Teachers are the best people to ask to do this as they do it already.
“What impact, if any, is “fake news” having on political discourse in the UK and elsewhere?“
It encourages challenge to opinions. That is, it is beneficial because the recipients use their brains to analyse, dissect, correct, respond to and/or dismiss.
“Does the government have any role to play in addressing the problem of “fake news”?“
True intent of the fake news inquiry
As stated above, users are able to decide how to use any social media platform and how to interact with any content thereon. Not only is there no need for the platform hosts to guide users with respect to accuracy of news but also such guidance is, by nature, censorship that is extremely unwelcome.
Watson and Dugher are pursuing an aim that is not information gathering but is a laughable exercise in attempted coercion that is doomed to fail. The leading questions, packed full of forced assumptions, are designed to guide the answers. But, just as fake news is spotted easily by almost all social media users, so is the undynamic duo’s clumsy plan.
So, what is the intent of the fake news inquiry? The simple answer is support for censorship of social media discourse. Nothing scares the elite more than the public talking to each other about political issues.