Cassie Staines, Senior Policy Officer at the independent fact-checking charity Full-Fact contributed this piece to our report Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century.
There is a moral panic about ‘fake news’ which is prompting frightening over-reactions by some governments around the world. Notwithstanding this, misinformation represents a real risk to open democratic societies and we need to develop effective responses.
As the UK’s independent factchecking charity, at Full Fact we have been building an evidence base of misinformation in all its guises for over eight years.
While misinformation has existed in various forms for a very long time, the internet has opened the doors to a proliferation of sources and emerging technologies that have changed the rules, particularly around elections. It is easier than ever to hide knowledge in plain sight and this makes it harder for people to know where to place their trust.
We believe that – while immediate action is needed to tackle some more urgent issues – rushing to come up with quick solutions to the range of issues could do more harm than good. The realistic goal is not to eliminate mis- and dis-information, but to build resilience against them.
What is the harm?
It is important to understand the types of harm associated with misinformation and the evidence of their impact before deciding whether government action is necessary or appropriate.
In the context of elections, we see three main areas of potential harm:
- Disengagement: The fast pace of technological development has led to the proliferation of information sources online and has changed the way voters consume campaign content, making it harder than ever for people to know where to place their trust. The sheer quantity of information available online, combined with having to assess the quality of content in terms of sources, means that there is a risk that people simply disengage and switch off.
- Interference: There have been warnings from official sources of concerted election interference campaigns and there is also strong evidence that misinformation has had a wide reach during elections, at least in other countries. The evidence of the impact of these interferences – for example the impact on voter choice – is less clear.
- Effects on beliefs and attitudes: We know that people have been seriously misinformed about the state of the world for as long as we have had data. But we do not yet know enough about how online political misinformation or state-sponsored disinformation affect people’s attitudes.
It is also important to consider that what happens between elections and before referendums may be just as important as what happens during official campaign periods. Harm can also extend beyond election disruption including to economic harm, abuse of power and even risk to life.
Actions to protect democracy
Misinformation can cause harm in an open democratic society. But it is important not to panic – the risk of harm from overreacting is potentially much greater. Any step to tackle misinformation must be cautious about potential unintended consequences on free speech and civil rights. Even relatively simple choices about what content should be amplified can inadvertently suppress the speech of certain groups. However, we do believe that immediate action is needed to tackle some urgent problems.
In the UK, there are a number of steps that the government needs to take to update our election law to make it fit for purpose in the digital age, and to protect the integrity of our democracy.
The first is to mandate transparency for political advertising by collecting adverts into an online, publicly searchable database in real time, in machine-readable formats. The second is for the imprint rule (information about who is campaigning) to apply online as well as in print.
It is welcome that internet companies have taken some steps to increase transparency without waiting for parliament to catch up – but it is no substitute for proper democratic decision-making about how our democracy works.
Any election or referendum conducted under the current rules would be vulnerable to abuse. Currently, it is possible for a candidate to run a thousand different political campaigns in the same election, promising something different to each group it targets. If we do not act, we risk undermining the principle that democracy is a shared experience.
Open information can tackle misinformation
As well as tackling misinformation and addressing the harms directly, it is also crucial that we build resilience against it in society. Providing high-quality and trusted information is an important part of an open democratic response.
The UK has an array of independent public bodies capable of informing public debate. We believe that we need to make much more use of these bodies and equip them, and the government and parliament, for 21st century communication if we are to maintain trust in public life in the face of campaigns to undermine it.
We need a proportionate response
At Full Fact we have called for action where we believe it is proportionate and can be beneficial. We have not called for government intervention in the content of information shared online or during political campaigns. This debate, and our thinking on it, has further to go.
Full Fact is the UK’s independent factchecking organisation. We have a cross-party board of trustees, and are funded by a range of charitable trusts, individual donors and corporate sponsors. We have received funding from Google and Facebook: details of our funding are available on our website.
You can read more about our recommendations to combat misinformation in our report: Tackling Misinformation in an Open Society.