On BBC World Service, it’s fake news season

The station’s latest campaign attempts to tackle the spread and rise of fake news.

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It’s fake news season at the World Service. “Not a celebration, I hasten to add!” interjected presenter Rajan Datar. More of a campaign to “tackle it head-on”. Tackle what precisely? The “spread and rise of fake news” has been “linked to everything” and is now such a perplexingly blanket term there’s even a newly appointed head of being anti it at the station, World Service director Jamie Angus, who prefers to think of the whole initiative as “beyond fake news” – a larger drive “against disinformation”. He sounded sane and decent, although few answers were detailed in the programme – short as it was.

A caller from India asked exactly how minutely trained new BBC journalists must be to dissect fake social media images. “Very,” came the assurance – little further was offered. A caller from Cameroon briefly (and tantalisingly) mentioned how social media there was routinely used to “settle personal vendettas and promote confusion” – but no particulars. During the forthcoming Indian and Nigerian elections WS bulletins will actually be called “the BBC’s authentic take”. And yet how will such “authentic” news be arrived at? (Nb: a straightforward, plod-plod programme on this sort of thing would be fantastically welcome.) Eventually someone complained about the nullifying use of the word fake: “Most of the stuff we see online isn’t even news.”

Of course, the internet has always been a place of disinformation and pretence to objectivity – I wish it hadn’t been invented either – but it’s hard to dodge the sinking feeling that both right and left in the UK and America to a certain extent benefit from the concept of fake news. It casts both in the heroic truth-seeker role. On the right: immigration hysteria, contempt for nuance, dissembling from Trump. On the left: an enduring belief that people are overly susceptible to media.

Minds being warped by outside actors and wicked people! Troll farms and Russians! Heads turned by a picture on a bus! Making everything the result of “technological interference” can begin to feel… like some kind of long refusal to face realities about the morale of Western civilisation. Two intellectually null sides determined to reframe the other as not merely fake, but fascist. 

Over to You: The Virus of Fake News
BBC World Service

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died