When is news fake? It’s a question that’s been around at least since the American Revolution when Benjamin Franklin circulated a fake newspaper in Boston.
And it became part of the craft of the US, Soviet and British intelligence services in the last century when the terms ‘disinformation’ and ‘black propaganda’ entered the lexicon.
But, in its new guise, it has become an incendiary issue in the lead up to the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president on Friday following publication of lurid allegations about him.
For the record, while I am alarmed and often appalled by Trump’s politics, I do not think unverified stories from dubious sources are the way to challenge him.
But let’s take the debate out of the currently toxic atmosphere of US politics and look at some examples where the truth is easier to establish.
In December, Michael Sheen was widely reported to be planning to become a full-time political activist. I believed it, and tweeted at the time: “please don’t give up film-making – like Ken Loach, combine creativity with politics”.
But it turned out the story was wrong. Sheen denied it on Twitter the next day and explained in a blog that he had been misquoted. He said he would like to focus more on politics and that it might mean working less as an actor, and maybe even stopping for a while, but the crucial phrase “at some point” had been left out of the story.
Then there is the case of Malia Bouattia, the first Muslim president of the National Union of Students. The Daily Mail alleged last June that she had refused to condemn ISIS and said young Muslims were travelling to join ISIS in Syria due to cuts to education.
This wasn’t true, and after receiving numerous complaints the paper published an apology just before Christmas saying Bouattia had condemned ISIS and cited cuts as only one of several reasons for Muslims going to Syria.
When the correction finally appeared, Bouattia and others tweeted about it but the original story must have had a far greater reach and will probably still be believed by many.
These examples highlight two things: the first is that mainstream media can be as guilty as social media of spreading fake news; the second is that social media is often the only platform private individuals have for correcting it.
But, of course, social media is also particularly vulnerable to fakery, as shown by the notorious story of a paedophile ring operating from a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, which led to a man taking an assault rifle to the premises.
So, what can we do about it? People who are paid to communicate, such as journalists and PR professionals, have a special responsibility for ensuring they check their facts and don’t spread misleading or fake stories.
Sadly, though, they are often under too much time pressure to do this properly or feel unable to challenge the political agenda of their paymasters.
My PR counterparts in the insurance industry, for example, disseminate the apparent ‘fact’ that fraudulent claims cost more than £1 billion annually, but this is at best misleading.
Fraud has a specific meaning in law but the insurers are using a definition that encompasses nebulous things such as the ‘suspicions’ of call centre operators.
The Financial Ombudsman took them to task for this in 2014 but they still quote the £1 billion figure without explaining they are not using the word fraud in its legal or dictionary sense.
At this point, I should declare an interest because a Freshwater client, Thompsons Solicitors, is actively challenging the insurers’ use of ‘fraud’ as the premise for attacking the rights of people injured at work and on the road.
And this takes us to the nub of the problem. We all have vested interests, whether as affected citizens or because we are paid to persuade people of something.
The only way the average Joe or Jane can discern what’s true or false is by going to more than one source and by asking themselves what interests are behind the story they are reading.
California is considering introducing ‘civic online reasoning’ into the school curriculum. Maybe we need something similar here.
This article is Steve’s monthly column for WalesOnline and the Western Mail newspaper.
Steve is also author of Over The Line, a novel telling the story of an Olympic poster girl tainted by the steroid-fuelled death of a friend.