“Fake News!” That has become the response from many people when they see something with which they disagree. Is it anything new though? Before we can answer that we need to consider how we receive news. For many years newspapers, made possible by the invention of the printing press, were the only medium. The first newspaper was published by Strasbourg book-binder Johann Carolus in 1605. The first English publication was the Oxford Gazette which appeared in 1665 and a year later became the London Gazette which survives to this day. The Yorkshire Post came along in 1754, the Times in 1784 and most important of all, the Barnsley Chronicle was launched in 1858.
The invention of radio made remote listening possible for the first time in 1922, the Empire Service, now the BBC World Service started international broadcasting in 1932 and the first high definition television service appeared in 1936.
It was radio which facilitated the first widespread dissemination of fake news when Lord Haw Haw, in reality an Irishman named Wm. Joyce, made regular broadcasts of German propaganda to the UK between 1939 and 1945.
Since WW2 we have seen a proliferation of television and radio stations and finally the internet. It is the latter which resulted in an exponential increase of news sources. Now anyone can set up a news website while sitting in his dressing gown, tapping away at a laptop and achieve a circulation the early newspapers could never have imagined. Then there is the ubiquitous social media, beloved by some world leaders as a way of combating the fake news of their opponents and by others who cannot resist posting videos of their cats.
The anonymity afforded by social media encourages some people to write what they would never write were it to be published with their name and address in their local paper. Users of social media will be aware of the volume of distasteful material, incitement, wild conspiracy theories and scams mixed up with fiction and news of varying degrees of reliability. Then there is the so-called echo chamber where viewing habits result in users seeing only the type of content with which they agree, thus reinforcing their preconceived ideas.
Regulation is sometimes mooted as a solution although how this could be achieved when the internet is a truly global phenomenon is never explained. So is fake news a serious problem? Perhaps to some extent if it encourages people to make decisions they would not otherwise make but the long term impact may be more insidious. Information overload will make it less and less likely that people will see what they need to see and in the end nothing will be believed. Now was that cat really stuck up a tree or was it photo-shopped?
First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living - February 2018