Combating ‘fake news’: The 21st century civic duty

Truth is under threat, if you care, don’t immediately share

Civic duty makes democracy work. From John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” to Barack Obama showing up for jury duty, to former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald helping his students write dissertations well into his 80s, the notion that citizens must contribute to the common good has been at the heart of democracies.

As the world changes, civic duty must also evolve. Today, our civic duty is to resist the “post-truth” society. When deliberate falsehoods can be described as “alternative facts”, when certain politicians claim that “there is no such thing as fact anymore” or that “truth isn’t truth”, then we must recognise that as a threat to liberal democracies.

Truth is at the heart of liberal democracy. Protect one, and you safeguard the other. Disregard one, and you imperil the other.

Information does not spread by itself, it requires people to spread it. So before sharing anything on social media, do some fact-checking

But truth is under threat, thanks to the practitioners of disinformation and the four D’s of deception: distort, distract, dismay and dismiss.


Pro-Kremlin websites

When a Russian-made Buk missile downed Malaysian Airlines MH17 in 2014, Sputnik, RT and other pro-Kremlin websites first denied it was a Russian missile . Then they said it was an Ukrainian attack. Then they said the pilot had deliberately crashed and the plane had been full of dead bodies before impact, and finally they said it was all part of a vast conspiracy to turn the world against Russia.

This never-ending flow of distraction, distortion, dismissal and dismay creates the fifth and most consequential D: Doubt. Doubt in our newspapers, doubt in our governments, doubt in our experts and doubt in the truth itself.

To resist this doubt, journalists are needed more than ever. They are in the front line in the battle against disinformation. While their salaries may be shrinking and their printed newspapers may be closing, a real journalist knows what their civic duty is: telling the truth. Proper journalists speak to actual sources and not just press officers.

They examine the political or financial motivations for a piece of information. They always ask one key question when they read a shocking headline: cui bono? Who benefits?

But good reporters are under threat. They are pressured to produce multiple stories every day by proprietors whose political views may override the need for truth. Under pressure to churn out stories, who can blame journalists when they tweak a few lines from other sources and repost? But if they do, they are failing in their civic duty. This happened recently when misinformation about a forthcoming “mini Ice Age” was spread around the world, in part because some journalists skipped the hard work and did not verify their sources.

We cannot afford for journalists to help spread information that someone else has deliberately concocted for financial or political gain.


But it needs to go beyond reporters. We all must do our part. Citizens can make it their civic duty to warn their friends, family and neighbours about the dangers of spreading disinformation, just as they would if burglars were operating in their neighbourhood.

The 21st century equivalent of clearing snow from the path of your elderly neighbour should be preventing your neighbour believing (and spreading or sharing) every outraged headline.

This new civic duty becomes more urgent every day. False information spreads faster on Twitter than the truth. But information does not spread by itself, it requires people to spread it. So before sharing anything on social media, do some fact-checking.

Truth is often complicated, messy and nuanced, whereas people who seek to spread fake news offer simple solutions to complex issues

This requires time and effort, but it means you are protecting your own rights and freedoms. Thanks to technology, everyone can become an investigative journalist from the comfort of their own laptop.

Start by considering whether the information has already been rebutted by respected broadcasters or websites.

Be aware of who is talking to you. Non-human agents, such as Twitter bots, play a major role in spreading false information. This affects you even if you have never used a microblogging site because these bots can and do influence mainstream media and politicians.

And then there are very human and concerted efforts to sway your opinion. A British cross party group of MPs has expressed concern about foreign interference in the Brexit referendum, in particular Russian efforts in support of the Leave campaign on social media.

So, everyone needs to ask whether the source appears credible, for example by consulting fact checking websites like the Poynter or the sites. Are the sources citing proper research or dodgy online polls?

Consider your own response to the information. Does it please you? If so, that’s nice but might someone play with your emotions? Does it make you angry? If so, are you facing an uncomfortable truth or are you consuming information designed to make you angry?

Think about how the information is presented. Does it make absolute claims or is it couched in more careful terms? Truth is often complicated, messy and nuanced, whereas people who seek to mislead or spread fake news offer simple solutions to complex issues such as blaming all crime on immigrants.

And finally, if you want to take it to a higher level of sophistication, copy the professionals and use the plethora of online tools to verify whether an image or video has been altered. The EU has funded the InVID plug-in to do just that.

If we value the freedoms we currently enjoy, we should recognise that we are in an information battle which we simply cannot afford to lose. It’s our new civic duty.

Prof Stephan Lewandowsky is professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Bristol. Joe Lynam was a broadcaster with the BBC before joining the EUCommission where he tackles disinformation.