Fake News is Nothing New for Human Rights – But How Do We Tackle It?
Feature

Fake News is Nothing New for Human Rights – But How Do We Tackle It?

By Jem Collins, Writer 5 May 2017
Speech

The past twelve months have seen an explosion in stories about the rise of ‘fake news’, but it’s actually nothing new. In fact, fake news is one of the reasons RightsInfo was set up.

“Fake news is old news in human rights,” explains RightsInfo founder and barrister Adam Wagner. “It’s been interesting watching the last six months, what with Brexit and Trump, with this amazing amount of analysis. We’ve been having to deal with this for a long time.”

Adam was speaking at The Free Word Centre with BuzzFeed’s Special Correspondent James Ball, and RightsInfo CEO Julia Kirby-Smith as part of RightsInfo’s second birthday celebration, in association with Free Word. The trio debated the implications of fake news, and what the phenomenon means for human rights.

‘The bigger problem is the kernel of truth’


“Fake news is something which is entirely concocted,” explained James Ball. “It has a very narrow definition. It’s sort of become a useful bogeyman, as we can all agree it’s bad. We don’t have to think about the really hard stuff.”

“The bigger problem is what I fatuously call ‘bullshit’, which is essentially the much wider ecosystem of material which is distorted or exaggerated, but which still has a kernel of truth, while being mostly untrue.”

‘Catgate’ is a prime example of this in action in the human rights world. Judges considering immigration cases take into account many factors to establish whether a couple are genuinely co-habiting, and this can include whether or not they have pets. However, this was distorted into a fake news story in which it was claimed, wrongly, that an illegal immigrant couldn’t be deported because he had a cat.

Because of the tiny nugget of accurate information buried within the lie, it’s a story that’s refused to go away. “It’s lodged in people’s minds, like it’s unbreakable now,” Adam said. “It’s also not just that people hear the story and don’t want to believe it – they’ve been convinced by newspapers for years and years that human rights are a villain. People have internalised these messages.”

How do we tackle it?

Given fake news is such a problem, how should news organisations counter it? According to James, immediacy is the key. “At BuzzFeed we try to make debunking, verification, and reporting part of the same process. Doing a fact check two or three days later does nothing. It’s become a zombie fact and, once it’s in the blood stream, there’s nothing we can do.”

For Julia, it’s also a matter of questioning a narrative rather than a fact: “It’s not just about fighting things with facts and logic, it’s about fighting narratives using hope and values, and that’s what we try to do here at RightsInfo”.

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About The Author

Jem Collins Writer

Jem is the Strategic Impact Director for RightsInfo, working on increasing our reach across the UK and measuring our impact. Previously she was the News and Social Media Editor. She is also passionate about helping young people into the media and runs Journo Resources, a start-up which helps young people into the media, as well as serving as a trustee of the Student Publication Association. She is also one of the co-founders of The Second Source, a group to help end harassment in the media. Email Jem

Jem is the Strategic Impact Director for RightsInfo, working on increasing our reach across the UK and measuring our impact. Previously she was the News and Social Media Editor. She is also passionate about helping young people into the media and runs Journo Resources, a start-up which helps young people into the media, as well as serving as a trustee of the Student Publication Association. She is also one of the co-founders of The Second Source, a group to help end harassment in the media. Email Jem