The phrase ‘Fake News’ synonymised 2017 and there are now 300 fact-checking organisations worldwide.

A study found that ‘in France, one false news outlet generated an average of over 11 million interactions per month — five times greater than more established news brands’.

However, addressing fake news continues to present several challenges.

Different Versions of ‘Truth’

Once upon a time, red-faced news outlets would quickly correct anything misreported. Today, innumerable news outlets are free to produce deliberately misleading material on the unregulated Web, unchallenged. ‘Fake news stories perpetuated online tend to be the more extreme, the more passionate, and the more harsh’, says Noel Hadjimichael, Chair of the Defence and Security Circle at the National Liberal Club.

Noel has been organising a series of lectures titled Focus on Fake, ‘on behalf of NATO Public Diplomacy and the National Liberal Club in Whitehall.’

Noel: ‘Those posting disinformation are sowing seeds, and we are waiting to see the results. What could the legacy of untreated fake news entail? If voters are increasingly convinced towards inflammatory untruths, it’s going to cause dramas, divisions, but it’s also going to undermine decision-makers. We’ve seen politicians become fearful. We’ve seen civil servants become more cautious, and we’ve seen the media self-censor because there is a pushback from the general population’.

The word ‘divisions’ is problematic here. It presents the first hurdle to tackling false information. ‘Collective Memory’ is broadly defined as: ‘a memory or memories shared or recollected by a group, as a community or culture.’ Although a group of people may share knowledge of the same past events, this collective memory is ultimately divided by interpretation. It tends to be split between the Message, the accepted version held in the archives, and the Trace, the under-reported version. Unlike the Message, the Trace does ‘not result from any […] motivation for testimony’. It plays no role in commemorating an event or deliberately shaping its remembrance.

Often associated with women and minority groups, the Trace is the version of history lived by those not powerful enough to dictate its course. Was the sinking of the Lusitania an attack on civilians or was the ship carrying allied weapons? Was Guy Fawkes going to blow up the Houses of Parliament or were the Catholics framed? Different versions of recorded history exist in any event and this extends to contemporary history.

The Ambiguity of Fake News

A BBC Reality Check confirmed that ‘working just one hour a week was all that was needed to be officially classified as employed’.

This manipulation of statistics does not appear to conform to the extremist and inflammatory definition of fake news cited above. Nevertheless, it emerges as very misleading, making ‘fake news’ all the more ambiguous, inconspicuous and even mainstreamed.

When assessing the reliability of an historical source, a recommended measure is if ‘[w]e look at the source, we try to find several sources that are giving very similar information’.

This presents the second problem. Rarity of fact or opinion does not necessarily falsify or invalidate a piece of information. If we only read sources that tell an identical version of events, we are in danger of stifling originality of thought. Journalists with a (and this must be emphasised) reasonable, well-founded but nevertheless obscure opinion may be overlooked just because their voice does not echo that of other opinion writers. They may use accurate information that has fallen away from the viewfinder in the collective conscience. Understandable paranoia about widespread misinformation may lead us to confuse the Trace — a viewpoint outside of the accepted narrative — with the Fake, driving us into an echo chamber. The version against fake news, therefore, risks inadvertently imitating it: feeding off fears, only telling readers what they will respond to and relying on shares for apparent reliability.

Subsequently, it is easy to see how the accepted Message and underground Trace came to be. Was the ‘Trace’ dismissed as untruth purely because its holders lacked the resources to document it in multiple forms? Were many ‘truths’ installed within the collective psyche purely through the mass media of the day? Certainly. And the debunking of historical facts proves that the line between fake news and vague news is a very fine one indeed.

Collective Memory as a Tool

Collective memory does not just help us understand the fight against fake news, it can also help address it. Some collectivity of thought enables us to breed ‘social cohesion and a greater sense of togetherness’.

With an enhanced understanding of the struggle for a nation’s democracy, the public will want to protect it. The stories within the Trace are essential to this narrative. The working classes whom the Chartists represented, the women whose votes the Suffragettes fought for, are all a part of this underground narrative. Furthermore, a readership who understand the struggles faced by marginalised groups will not take their hard-won democratic rights for granted. They will want to be accurately informed. Subsequently, combatting fake news does not only present us with an argument for Collective Memory but also for widening it to include the underreported accounts. This can also help to address the ‘echo chamber’ problem simply by drawing more discussion points up from the ocean bed of history.

In the day-to-day, hallmarks of attempts to misinform include a website that ‘looks like it was put together only yesterday’, a link to a cited source that you follow but ‘can’t find that article it was based upon’, and no or very little reliable information ‘about the journalist or the commentator’.

With enough education and training on how to spot it, we can make the spread of misinformation part of the past and a somewhat questionable chapter in our — better rounded — Collective Memory.

Listen to the full interview with Noel Hadjimichael here.

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