Fake news has been named Word of the Year by Collins dictionary, showing just how pervasive the spreading of false information has become.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon. False narratives and propaganda have been used for centuries to influence public opinion. But what’s different now is the speed with which it can reach millions of people around the world.
The acquisition of a moral compass — the ability to tell right from wrong — is one of the key stages of childhood. And while being able to tell truth from lies is an important skill, we never expected children to have to use it all the time. We never expected them to have to doubt everything they hear, read or see, to the point where it seems that nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be believed.
Thanks to the rise of social media, nearly half the world’s population is now connected by a digital network which also provides “super powers” to advertisers, politicians and marketers who want to influence them. Unchecked, these powers could propel us into a post-truth world that threatens civil discourse and society itself. We all know what happens in societies where you can’t trust anyone. It never ends well.
So what can be done about it? First, we need internet giants to take responsibility for the content that is weaponising their platforms. This doesn’t require them to edit all their content, but to take significant steps to ensure basic standards of reliability.
Second, we need to strengthen the role of parents, teachers and community leaders in helping children to realise that truth is not a subjective matter and that some information is false and deliberately circulated by hoax news sites to misinform them.
Third, we need to restore children’s trust in established news outlets and show that, despite errors here and there, these sources can help them recognise what is accurate and reliable.
One example is a new programme by the BBC to bring critical thinking to teens and sixth form students by offering in-class mentoring, online lessons and direct contact with BBC journalists. This kind of support will help children build the confidence and resilience they need to become critical thinkers and ensures that we don’t stand by while the foundations of our democracies are being shaken.
We cannot stop the production of fake news any more than we can interpret everything our children read or watch for them. But we must take responsibility for giving them tools that they can use to tell the difference between true and false stories.