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Local journalists playing ‘critical role’ in ‘fake news’ fight, new study says

Paul ReillyLocal journalists have played a “critical role” in fighting the spread of ‘fake news’, a new study has found.

Research by the University of Sheffield has revealed how local journalists were key in debunking rumours, misinformation and disinformation in their coverage of contentious episodes in Northern Ireland.

The study by Dr Paul Reilly, from the university’s Information School, looked at coverage of incidents in Northern Ireland including the 2013 union flag protests and the 2014 and 2015 Ardoyne parade disputes.

The results have been submitted to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s Fake News inquiry.

Among the examples of ‘fake news’ cited by Dr Reilly which were shared on social media during the 2014 parade impasse was a picture of an Irish nationalist protestor holding aloft a placard with a mock road sign declaring that the Orange Order was not welcome in the area.

However, this was quickly debunked by citizens who shared an image posted BBC journalist Kevin Sharkey which revealed the placard had in fact read ‘Love Thy Neighbour’.

Similarly, the submission also highlights how Chief Constable George Hamilton was the subject of rumours and misinformation during the 2015 parade after a viewer of Russia Today’s live stream of the standoff between loyalists and the PSNI posted on Twitter that they had seen a senior police officer resembling the Chief Constable being injured by an object thrown by one of the rioters.

This misinformation was corrected within a few hours by local journalist Rodney Edwards, who confirmed he had spoken to the Chief Constable and he had not been present at the scene during the incident.

Dr Reilly, pictured, said: “While citizens played a role in sharing tweets that corrected rumours, mis-and disinformation shared on social media during these incidents, it is clear that professional journalists have a critical role to play in fact checking such claims and amplifying corrections and debunks.”

In his submission, Dr Reilly also argued that the term ‘fake news’ fails to capture the complexities of how false information is created and shared via social media.

He added: “Fake news has become something of a ‘floating signifier’ – a term that can be weaponised by political groups to discredit news coverage that they disagree with. It also fails to capture the nuances of a spectrum of activity on social media that might be broadly defined as ‘false information’.

“This ranges from the relatively benign behaviour of parody social media accounts that poke fun at our politicians to the more malevolent and sinister use of ‘troll farms’ to manufacture news with the intention of sowing confusion and disunity within democracies.”