Fake news is an epidemic that’s out of control—and we all need to be inoculated

Never mind the three million falling for online fraudsters, where’s the campaign of information to help the 20+ million of us who are being assailed daily by a digital thicket of disinformation, trolls, bias, lies and deepfakes?

March 08, 2024
Image: Alamy / Prospect
Image: Alamy / Prospect

Stop. Think. Fraud. You may well have seen or heard the Home Office advert in recent weeks that’s trying to educate us in all the ways online crooks are out to cheat us.

They seem so plausible, these cyber crooks, as they try to trick us into handing over our passwords, bank details, PIN numbers, identities and cash. The website tells us that one in 17 adults in England and Wales were victims of fraud in one year—nearly three million of us.

That’s a lot of people, but a drop in the ocean compared with the number of us being fooled and deceived in other ways. One respected survey showed that nearly two thirds of us can no longer tell the difference between good journalism and falsehood. Around the same are finding it harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected news organisation.

So that’s about 24m adults—never mind kids or teenagers—in the dark about who to believe. And if that doesn’t make you “stop, think, fraud”, then nothing will.

This week I found myself with a bunch of smart 19-year-olds, all starting life at uni. Where, I asked them, did they get their news? For most of them the answer was a social media channel—Instagram, Reddit, TikTok.

My follow up was to ask where did the news come from before it was published on social media? This caused a certain amount of confusion: it seemed to be a novel thought. I prompted them to consider whether Instagram itself employed any reporters—and, if not, might the news have originated somewhere else?

The penny dropped, even if they weren’t entirely sure where such and such a screen grab or picture or link had begun life. Only three out of a group of nearly 20 could name the origin of a piece of news they’d recently consumed on social media.

I then switched to what, with a sinking heart, we’re learning to call mainstream media. Not one member of the group had, of course, paid for news or could imagine doing so. One or two looked at the BBC.

They could not, with one exception, say whether either the Daily Mail or Mirror was right-wing or left-wing. They had no idea who owned a single newspaper, though one or two had heard of an abstract figure called Rupert Murdoch. They were not markedly interested in questioning why anyone would want to own a newspaper, or who determined what “news” was.

We moved onto facts, and whether a measure of agreement over them was necessary in order to have a functioning society. One or two were sceptical as to whether there were even such things as facts. “Whose facts?” they wanted to know. After some discussion, there was some consensus that it would be difficult to get to grips with the climate crisis if we couldn’t agree that there was one.

I’ve no wish to be at all disobliging about these youngsters, who were tremendously smart, likeable, and curious. Most of them sort of kept abreast with some news, though two said they had zero interest in current affairs. But at no point had they been encouraged to be critical, sceptical or even especially inquiring about what they were being told about the world around them. The role of the national press in informing, or shaping, public opinion seemed a genuinely unfamiliar concept.

But then we have recently had a prime minister—who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Merton College, Oxford, no less—who sincerely appears to believe that GB News is a more reliable guide to our world than the BBC. Nor is Liz Truss alone in our political and financial classes. 

Never mind the three million falling for online fraudsters, where’s the campaign of information to help the 20+ million of us who are struggling to negotiate their way through a digital thicket of disinformation, trolls, bias, propaganda, PR, disguised advertising, churnalism, lies, deep fakes, AI-generated stuff, hallucinations and conspiracy wing nuts? With a bit of truth somewhere in the mix.

The first reaction to the bewildering revolution of information chaos we’re being battered by is usually a call for more regulation. Regulation surely has a role—but which regulator on the planet could stay on top of the 4.75bn items shared by Facebook users every day? Or the 500m on Twitter/X? Or the 95m on Instagram? Or the 35m on TikTok, or the one million on Reddit?

The scale of the problem is so unimaginably vast that the only solution is for each and every one of us to be on the lookout for scammers in relation to all online information—a bit like fraud.

With my group of students, I’d have liked the time to get them to think more deeply about the origins of information; the difference between news and comment and how to spot it; to question who owns and gatekeeps the news—and why. To be able to differentiate between a good source and a dodgy one. To be able to tell the difference between a real picture and a fake one. To have some sense of the political motivation, if any, lying behind words. Were professional journalists involved? Or other people who are genuinely expert in a subject? How would they spot and assess a piece of content generated by a computer, or a deepfake image? How do conspiracy theories start? How do you nail one?

Our intelligence agencies are alive to the threat that disinformation can pose in terms of public security, order and social cohesion. A generation of information innocents represents a huge vulnerability.

“Media studies” used to be considered a joke course—a woke non-subject for intellectual duffers. But isn’t some kind of compulsory grounding in media literacy becoming an urgent need in terms of our national curriculum?

The Germans are ahead of us—with a No Education without Media movement. Media literacy is part of the core curriculum in Denmark (for 16–19-year-olds) and Sweden and is being taken seriously by Unesco. A DCMS-funded UK pilot, the News Literacy Trust, has found that only 2 per cent of children have the skills they need to identity misinformation, and that half of teachers believe that children are not equipped to identity fake news.

So by all means tackle the online scammers. But the virus of misinformation is now an epidemic. And every single one of us needs a form of inoculation.