The widely debated Online Safety Bill might soon be enacted into UK law. With the House of Lords expected to vote on and push through the Bill this January, its passing will mark a pivotal step in the future of internet governance. Among its many proposals to safeguard the safety of UK citizens online, online platforms will need to abide by a ‘duty of care’ to protect their users from various kinds of harmful digital content that have emerged over the last few years and are increasingly blurring the lines between legal and illegal activity.
However, despite all the ambitious plans that the Bill is aiming to realise, it unfortunately overlooks one very covert, but crucial form of harmful online content that has been affecting a considerable number of people: fake news. And fake news is no longer an issue affecting older generations as they attempt to navigate themselves through the digital landscape. Young people are considerably affected as well, especially considering that Ofcom’s most recent ‘News consumption in the UK’ report found that Facebook and Instagram are rated as the most important news sources amongst 16 to 24 year olds.
The impact of fake news on lives continues to manifest itself in a variety of ways. Fake news has not only led to greater polarisation in our politics and our society, more recently we have witnessed just how much fake news is becoming a ‘life-or-death’ matter. We may have become familiar with the online ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ dictating our lives and influencing the outcomes of US presidential elections or the Brexit vote in the UK. But the Covid-19 pandemic showed that fake news too has become a matter of public health. At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation spoke of an ‘infodemic’ bombarding people across the world with an overabundance of information, of which only some was factual and true. Many people consequently experienced difficulties identifying trustworthy sources and reliable guidance about the virus, and young people in particular found it hard to know what information about Covid-19 was true or false.
The inability to distinguish truths from falsehoods has thereby become a life-or-death matter. Misleading online content about the war in Ukraine has been used to ‘justify’ Russian aggression in Ukraine, and has led to widespread confusion and harm at the expense of the safety of the Ukrainian population. A so-called ‘deep fake’ video portraying Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was created to make it appear as though Zelenskyy was telling Ukrainian citizens to ‘lay down arms’ using increasingly advanced techniques such as artificial intelligence (AI). The kinds of misleading content making the rounds online therefore are no longer limited to articles or tweets containing false information: fake news is becoming harder and harder to discern from fact.
And even in the UK, we are not immune from fake news either. Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat recently warned against the threat that disinformation continues to pose to British democracy and freedom, and the danger in algorithms increasingly being used as a national security asset by Russia or China.
We need to do better in tackling fake news and the detrimental effects it has on our lives: the issue of fake news is one that needs urgent addressing. Recent research conducted by Polis Analysis — an organisation entirely made up of young people under 30 who are dedicated to fighting the threat that fake news poses to our society — confirmed that this is a widely shared sentiment amongst young people. 88% of respondents to the fake news survey felt that they had been feeling at risk of falling victim — or already had fallen victim — to fake news. But another 74% feels that tackling fake news should be a priority for the government, and more needs to be done to ensure that people are sufficiently educated about its dangers.
That is why we need to proactively champion teaching people the invaluable skills that help them to critically examine headlines and identify misleading articles. Fighting fake news cannot simply be achieved through a top-down approach in which governments are tasked with sanctioning media platforms for tolerating the spread of mis- and disinformation. Although we should welcome broadening of legislation to increase the protection of people online, we also ought to wholeheartedly embrace a bottom-up approach that provides people with the tools they need to distinguish truths from falsehoods from a young age.
We therefore need educational programmes designed to teach children and young people the necessary media literacy skills to harness themselves against the dangers of fake news. A robust programme designed in close collaboration with industry experts can receive funding from the government and be rolled out nationwide. Additional community and citizen-driven initiatives teaching younger and older generations how to safely and responsibly navigate the digital space will ensure that government initiatives such as the Online Safety Bill are as effective as possible in making the UK a safe place to be online, free from harmful false information. And finally, we need to continue supporting media outlets that provide neutral, trustworthy, and fact-based information and that are rigorous in their media reporting.
Monitoring the increasingly obvious effects of fake news on the health of our democracy is but one of the things that new media outlets and organisations are doing to address the issue. However, to further spread the message and raise awareness, organisations like Polis Analysis have been engaging with the government to influence important policy, campaigning on social media to raise awareness of the issue, and reaching out to students across the UK. Young people are not immune from fake news and its dangers, so harnessing our collective power has never been more important. The power to tackle misinformation, disinformation and fake news therefore lies in the hands of the younger generations.