Over the past few months “fake news” has itself been a focus of much serious news coverage.  Separate from the implications this has for journalism and the role of news media, what else might be driving the current moral panic over this phenomenon?  Fake news has been blamed for the recent Brexit and Trump election victories and there is evidence that it is being deliberately manufactured by political and state actors.

As I have argued in a recent article for the Conversation, the function of fake news as propaganda is not new.  This has been a feature of political communication throughout history.  The newness and part of the moral panic arises from the use of digital media – that is, from the spread of fake news through social media.  Ironically this is in part because social and digital media also make visible the ways in which fake news is created and spread.  They make it possible for those with time to track it down and identify it.  At the same time, most people do not do this and the speed and share-ability of social media therefore allows it to spread.

Though there are potential technological fixes for this – and the social media providers need to be brought out from behind their moral and ethical bolt hole of “we just provide the technology” in order to share some responsibility – in truth, this is a media literacy issue.  As I note in my Conversation article, the ability to spot and identify fake news is a function of prior exposure to various news sources, especially hard hews.  Taking the time to make assessments and check before sharing is an issue of communication ethics.  We therefore need to ensure that we are equipping our children and students with these skills.  We also need to ask ourselves how often we check before sharing – especially when we agree with the sentiment of the post.

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