The BBC was issued with a D-notice, a gagging order, last week to silence its reporting of the gilets jaunes protests in France. Or so you might believe if you followed reports on social media. This story was entirely false. But it’s a sign of how powerfully momentum gathers behind misinformation — or deliberate attempts to mislead — that we have received freedom of information requests demanding “the truth”.
Who is behind such reports? What do they hope to gain? To answer we need to look at the technology that has profoundly transformed our media environment. And to recognise that, while many fake news stories might seem laughable, the effects are deadly serious.
Last year, in India, an estimated 10 people were killed by lynch mobs after inflammatory reports about child abduction gangs spread rapidly on WhatsApp. A video blamed as the catalyst purported to show CCTV footage of a child being snatched by two men on a motorbike. It turned out to be a cleverly edited clip from a Pakistani child safety campaign.
In Nigeria, police say false information and incendiary images on Facebook have contributed to more than a dozen recent killings in an area torn by ethnic violence. This month Nigerians go to the polls amid growing tensions. A BBC investigation highlighted that Facebook’s partners in Nigeria had just four full-time fact checkers to review false information, on a platform used by 24m Nigerians.
In Myanmar, Facebook has removed hundreds of pages and accounts that were part of a systematic, anti-Rohingya propaganda campaign.
Fake news is now the poison in the bloodstream of our societies — destabilising democracy and undermining trust in institutions and the rule of law. It has become a powerful tool for profit or political gain at all levels, from villages to repressive regimes. In the west we have witnessed its power to distort public debates, fuel divisions and influence voters. In emerging and developing economies, it can generate violence. In these countries, where digital literacy is lower and democratic institutions more fragile, the rise of misinformation constitutes an urgent crisis.
The threats will heighten as the weapons of deliberate disinformation become ever more sophisticated — from state-sponsored troll factories, to armies of bots and malicious content sowing community discord. With deepfake video manipulation technology, we are entering an era in which technology can make any thing look believable.
If fake news is the poison, those who stand up for integrity and impartiality in news must be the antidote. At the BBC, we are always looking for new ways to live up to these responsibilities. We have introduced our international anti-disinformation initiative, Beyond Fake News. The BBC Reality Check is now part of our daily news output. We’re investing in 150 new local politics reporters around the UK.
Others in the media industry are also taking on fake news. But we are all playing catch-up with the information manipulators and the playbooks they have perfected. It’s time for all of us who believe that truth matters to come together around the values we share. The BBC has invited media organisations from across the world to join us at a special conference this summer to explore how we can tackle the global rise of misinformation, deliberate disinformation and bias. The goal is to make a concrete action plan that we can implement quickly.
The response has been encouraging: newspaper groups, technology companies and social media platforms are taking part. At the recent World Economic Forum, I found a powerful groundswell of support for the initiative. Identifying practical measures to adopt will be tough. But failure will be measured in the corrosion of democratic values and, in some places, lost lives. We must act now, collectively, to turn the tide.
The writer is director-general of the BBC