Somewhere near, closer to you than may be comfortable, fingers on a keyboard are moving rapidly to alter the news. To amend and adapt it, to re-engineer and slant, to pretend that edited and corrupted versioning came from respectable sources, to repurpose adapted versioning to suit the purposes of politicians either by falsely bolstering their claims or by seeding dissension amongst their opponents. We have  reached the stage where no one knows who to believe anymore, and that is exactly the situation that those who are creating this pollution intend. 

We also know who is creating this pollution. There is now a mountain of evidence of the unofficial news manipulation activities of the Russian, Chinese and US governments, aided by smaller nations around the world. If the politicians who covertly endorse these activities were faced with a population protesting about polluted drinking water and consequent health risks, public pressure would force action. Polluting our minds, however, is a poison without taste or smell. And like a virus can create effects that lie dormant for a long time. 

Some people say that this is simply a byproduct of living in a fully digital, networked society. We just have to live with it, just as we live with phishing and other forms of online fraud. And it is true that we anxiously teach our children to delete things whose source is unknown and never to open attachments when we can not verify the sender. We are particularly grateful to our networks at the moment since they enabled life and work to continue, for many of us, relatively undisturbed during a pandemic. So, say some, you have to live with the downside. Fake news is simply an inevitability in a networked society where credulous people will be influenced by anything that looks authoritative on a screen. 

So is this the networked society that my children and grandchildren will inherit from me? Already many of us accept that a claim is not credible if it was made by the Prime Minister of the UK or the President of the United States, since the claims made by these individuals have been shown to contain falsehoods so often that both lack serious credibility. A rule of thumb has always been, IMHO, that if anyone used the word “honest” before stating a view, they were about to disguise a dishonest distortion. It is certainly true that if anyone bellows “fake news” at a story that does not suit his purposes, he is as certainly creating fake news as he is labelling it.  

For many of us, the manipulation is reaching beyond the scope of Joseph Goebbels in 1933 and is all the more insidious because verification is so difficult in the network. Taught as we have been to rely on trusted media brands, we now see those brands stand helpless as they are hijacked to spread the dissemination of falsehoods. And indeed it would be hard to trust some media brands, especially those owned or controlled by the Murdoch family, given their long history of phone hacking and illegal news gathering, as well as a determination to employ news in the pursuit of power. So is it hopeless? Do we just have to sit and wait until, in terms of Dr Goebbel’s great achievement, the news becomes what autocracy tells us it is? 

There are glimmers of light, straws in the wind that show that some people are thinking about this really seriously. They need our active and vocal support. The BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation set up a joint project, the Trusted News Initiative, and have now been joined by the New York Times, Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal to step up efforts during the US Presidential election. It claims some success in the UK, including quashing the story that PM Johnson had died of Covid19. TNI has now joined with Project Origin  in an effort to relate a watermarking programme. If they can do this successfully then we may be on the brink of the sort of strategy that can begin the fightback against disinformation. Stationers Company members who heard Bruce MacCormack, a special advisor to this work, in London last November will recall the zeal and passion with which this work is being addressed. 

Provenance. In order to verify a news story we need to know it’s source, how and when it was first promulgated and what it looked like in its original form. The watermark could be the beginning of the road to verification. The network has created the issue, and the technology of the network must be the solution. But another piece of tech is not a plaster that will heal all wounds. Society at large has to address the problems that politicians would prefer to gloss over. Every teacher, every librarian, every parent will have, once we can establish news provenance, the duty to repeat over and over again “never trust the news until you can verify it’s origins”. And every liberal democracy should be ashamed if it does not establish compulsory curriculum elements around the need to treat news with critical discrimination. Meanwhile, kudos and congratulations to the TNI and Project Origin consortia: The partners currently within the TNI are: AFP; BBC, CBC/Radio-Canada, European Broadcasting Union (EBU),Facebook, Financial Times, First Draft, Google/YouTube, The Hindu, Microsoft, Reuters, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Twitter, The Wall Street Journal.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind