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Law Column: Combatting the spread of fake news

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The notion of fake news has been catapulted into the public eye in recent years as a concerning internet phenomenon; a consequence of the way in which the medium has grown without resolving the key issue as to how readers can or should separate fact from fiction in the online world.

The internet is open to exploitation from those who wish to present their own version of the truth in order to advance a product, service or particular idea; with the particular concept being proliferated almost instantly to a mass audience, to potentially devastating effect.

For journalists, fake news is seen to have an increasingly destructive impact upon “real” news and people’s trust in mainstream media. This general trend reinforces the importance and value in the market of good journalism.

Now, more than ever, it is important for journalists to consider, when researching stories, the importance of their own natural scepticism, fact checking and the possibility of bias, inherent both in themselves and their source materials. Such investigative rigour should ensure the editorial integrity and value of the work.

The issue of fake news is inextricably linked with the growth of social media sites, which provide a global platform for the exchange of information.

Given that many people obtain their news primarily from social media sites, the focus is clearly on companies such as Facebook and Twitter to take greater responsibility for the content purveyed on their services. This has been reflected in policy changes on social media platforms to try to prevent the dissemination of false information.

In the legal sphere, it remains to be seen whether new bespoke laws and regulations to combat the fake news problem will be introduced. Existing legal solutions clearly present options for victims of fake news.

Action may be possible where a particular post or story appearing online is defamatory, incites violence, hatred or terrorism or constitutes an invasion of an individual’s right to privacy. However, there is a concern that such recourses may prove to be expensive, unwieldy and – crucially in the context of today’s fast paced world – time consuming to pursue.

An interim report published earlier this year by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on “Disinformation and ‘fake news'” has found that that our existing legal framework is, in a rapidly changing digital world, no longer fit for purpose.

Outside the UK, a number of different countries, including France and Germany, have introduced new legislation to fight fake news – however critics warn that the proliferation of such legislation could present a danger to freedom of expression and the media.

It is clear that if the law is to be changed in this country a balance must be struck; providing a robust and agile legislative framework to protect the victims (and guard against the consequences) of fake news, whilst not infringing upon hard fought rights enshrined in Article 10 ECHR.

In the meantime, how can journalists protect themselves against the risks of ‘fake news’? If repeated, fake news carries the risk of not only embarrassment, but an IPSO complaints and potentially, defamation claims, where the fake news crosses that line.

Adopting rigorous fact checking and the usual verification of sources should help to ensure that a story does not contain false information, decreasing the risk of a claim in defamation. As always, good standards of journalism should mitigate the risks.