The Media Today

The media today: Britain sets up a ‘fake news’ security task force

January 24, 2018

President Donald Trump regularly rails against the “fake news” he says is published by The New York Times and CNN, but so far the White House hasn’t taken any steps to get the country’s intelligence community involved. British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, appears to be trying to do just that, by creating a special task force within the country’s national security apparatus to mount a counterattack on misinformation.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s office described the new force as a “dedicated national security communications unit.” Its creation was reportedly agreed upon by members of the UK’s National Security Council, a parliamentary committee that oversees all issues related to national security, intelligence, and defense strategy.

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A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office said the country currently finds itself “in an era of fake news and competing narratives,” and that the unit “will be tasked with combating disinformation by state actors and others.” How parliament plans to combat this kind of misinformation is unclear, but the task force will be run out of the Cabinet Office, which means it operates at the highest levels of the British government.

“Fake news” has become a rallying cry in Great Britain since the so-called Brexit vote in 2016, in which a majority of the country’s residents chose to leave the European Union. The country is in the midst of a special parliamentary inquiry into whether foreign actors or agents tried to influence the Brexit vote by distributing misinformation through posts on social networks.

The problem for the new task force will be defining what qualifies as “fake news,” a term that has become so debased that some experts say it is effectively meaningless. According to a recent Gallup-Knight Foundation poll, some conservative voters believe the term should apply even to accurate news stories that are unfavorable towards politicians like the president. Hopefully the UK task force won’t apply that definition.

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Here are some more links related to the problem of misinformation and the attempt by various governments to stamp it out:

  • Inspired by the French? Britain’s Prime Minister may have gotten the idea for her task force from French President Emmanuel Macron, who said recently that he is planning to give that country’s media regulator the power to block or even remove “fake news” content from the Internet during the upcoming French national elections.
  • A European movement: The moves by Britain and France are just the latest in a series of developments in Europe that have advocates for free speech and freedom of the press concerned: Germany has also come under fire for its “hate speech” law, which requires social networks like Facebook and Twitter to remove hateful commentary.
  • Fake news is not a joke: In the US, the use of the term “fake news” took on a much more serious tone after a Michigan man was arrested for threatening to shoot people at CNN on Tuesday. The man reportedly called the network’s offices repeatedly, calling the channel “fake news,” and saying he planned to “gun you all down.”
  • A new Ministry of Truth? In a recent editorial, the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner asked whether Europe was going “full Orwell” and creating new Ministries of Truth. “Who will decide which news is real and respectable, on the one hand, and which, on the other, is fake and must be censored?” the editorial asked.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Arizona Daily Star reporter Hank Stephenson writes about how he managed to track down a secret “blacklist” of former teachers that the Tucson school district in Arizona had been maintaining, something teachers said they had heard rumors about for many years but never actually seen.
  • Students at Salt Lake City high school awoke one morning to find that their newspaper’s website had been tampered with, and an investigative story about a teacher who had been fired for inappropriate behavior had been deleted. So they set up their own newspaper site and published it anyway.
  • The Financial Times sent two of its reporters undercover to report on an exclusive, black-tie fundraiser in London attended by men only. The journalists, who pretended to be hostesses, said they were told to wear skimpy black dresses and were repeatedly groped, propositioned, and otherwise sexually harassed.
  • Columbia University has launched its new Ira A. Lipman Journalism and Civil and Human Rights Center under the direction of New Yorker staff writer and Columbia Journalism School professor Jelani Cobb, an expert on history and race. The Center plans to award two fellowships this year.
  • The mellifluously named newspaper chain Tronc is reportedly in talks with new-media startup Axios to form a partnership that would see content from Axios appear in a number of Tronc-owned papers, including The Los Angeles Times.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Emmanuel Macron as France’s Prime Minister but his actual title is president.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.