WEDNESDAY 12 DEC 2018 3:31 PM


On 1 November 2018, the UK’s foreign secretary made a bold claim that a major objective of the UK’s future foreign policy would be to tackle fake news. “Defending a free media must therefore be a central element of British foreign policy, in keeping with our country’s role as an invisible chain linking the nations that share our values,” said Jeremy Hunt.

Leaving aside the arguments about the reality of Britain’s level of free speech and free media, the foreign secretary’s aims of supporting, globally, the ‘lifeblood of democracy’ are honourable, sensible and urgent in today’s post-truth world.

However, if this desire is coupled with initiatives focusing on the old concept of ‘the media’ or traditional media development then its objectives may never be fully met. Today’s battles to fight fake news and counter disinformation need to be viewed through the lens of the wider information ecosystem, not just the media. Within this ecosystem there are three stakeholders – government (and opposition), the media (anybody active in the ecosystem, from the traditional news outlets, to the FANGS to the solitary blogger) and the public. Previously, I contend, the latter have been often ignored; mere cannon fodder in the battle of ideas played out in that ecosystem. Yet, increasingly, this where the action is.

While the big legacy media players still maintain a significant ability to frame the public policy agenda, the public now has an ability to amplify, manipulate, obfuscate or restrain that agenda. Indeed, the public is increasingly expected to play its part, from online activism to online polling to full-blown e-democracy initiatives. Research has shown that, in contemporary information warfare, the public is far from being a non-combatant. The public is one of the prime amplifiers, or in military parlance, force multipliers, of news, fake or otherwise. And, the public is increasingly ‘the media’ and therefore part of the problem.

It is largely accepted that literacy, in this case media and information literacy, is a vital component in creating and maintaining a responsible and informed citizenry. However, there is an argument that standards of media literacy have failed to keep pace with the rapid changes of an increasingly all-encompassing digital media ecosystem within democracies. As such, a thesis may be proposed that the public’s ability to analyse media texts, to understand and navigate the information ecosystem, has allowed misunderstanding, miscalculation and manipulation. Several commentators lament a crisis within today’s media but also warn of the increased difficulty in navigating that media.

A Stanford University study in late 2016 showed that a majority of US high school students had significant difficulty in analysing news sources. More worryingly, recent research by the Pew Research Center found that, if anything, younger audiences are more discerning and critical of media than their elders. And our own research at Albany Associates has revealed that skills in critical thinking, a central facet of media and information literacy, are woefully inadequate in African education systems. As the Knight Foundation states, “What it means to ‘know what’s going on in the world’ has become a hotly contested issue.” Journalist Ilya Lozovsky captures the concern, claiming that we are “Facebooking ourselves to death.” In such circumstances, the nurturing of a high quality free media and the political protection of such media will only go so far in tackling today’s fake news problem.

While responsible, democratically based government communications and free and objective local media industries are vital in a healthy information ecosystem, a critically aware and information-literate public are of equal importance. That applies in our own western democracies and even more so in less developed nations, those in the foreign secretary’s spotlight.

The foreign secretary has proclaimed that, “Access to fair and accurate information is also something we should remember is the lifeblood of democracy.” Using this analogy, then, consider the responsible government to be red blood cells, the free and quality media (in all its forms) to be white blood cells, and the information literate public to be plasma. It’s the plasma that enables the physical flow of the bloodstream; without it the blood cells go nowhere. In a digital world, without media and information-literate publics, the battle to fight fake news and the foreign secretary’s dream goes nowhere.

Jem Thomas is director of training and research at Albany Associates