In line with the the LSE Commission on Truth Trust and Technology report published on 19 November, recommendations have been made to establish a new agency to monitor and tackle the problem of fake news. The suggested “Independent Platform Agency” would be funded by a new levy on digital platforms operating in the UK.
The findings of the report were presented and discussed in an official launch at the LSE on 20 November, featuring the authors of the report and members of the commission who were made up of LSE academic staff and media sector professionals.
“How do we make the most out of the internet while avoiding the harm it can cause?” asked Professor Charlie Beckett, the Lead Commissioner, when discussing the motivation behind the Commission’s research.
Prof Beckett noted that the past year has been an extraordinary one, especially for news-carrying digital platforms that have been under the spotlight in terms of their role in spreading disinformation and fake news.
One of the co-authors of the report, Professor Sonia Livingstone, said that while the phenomenon of “fake news” is not new, the significant changes in the media landscape has brought what she termed as a “information crisis” to a critical point. (See Graphic)
Researchers were therefore seeking a systematic solution to the problem. They were inspired by a past report which sought to address significant social problems – The Beveridge Report.
The report, published in 1942, helped to lay the foundations for the British welfare state, and paved the way for the creation of the National Health Service (NHS).
“We certainly don’t expect to create the next NHS,” Professor Livingstone joked. Nonetheless, the researchers’ desire to help achieve radical change in the media landscape was emphasised with the proposed changes.
Ministry of Truth?
The launch attracted a large crowd of media professionals and LSE students who grilled the panellists on the feasibility of the commission’s proposals, and the ways in which they could be implemented.
The panellists repeatedly emphasised the fact that they were not advocating for censorship of the press.
“We do not envision the new Independent Platform Agency acting as a “Ministry of Truth” policing what is and is not facts,” stated report co-author and special advisor to the Commission, Associate Professor Damian Tambini.
Noting that the commission was mindful of fact that regulation could cause more problems than solve them, such as raising barriers to entry to the media market or locking in dominant players, Prof Tambini argued that the agency’s role was primarily to ensure whether news providers have adopted fundamental steps to verify facts being reported.
Guest panellist Polly Curtis, who is also the former Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost UK, noted her own reluctance to embrace new external regulations on the media industry. However, the key role played by digital platforms such as Facebook in spreading misinformation has made her rethink this approach.
The authors of the report also cautioned against embracing easy solutions to the “information crisis”. Any solution, including their own proposals, were just one of many that should be considered.
One example was an education in media literacy, which Prof Livingstone suggested could be useful, when conducted for any age group, in both an integrated and sustained manner.
“But education is not a silver bullet, and should not be done as a policy of last resort,” she said. Without policy interventions, individuals will be burdened with a challenge that even governments have struggled, she noted.
Prof Tambini argued than rather than hoping for champions to emerge, or the possibility of introducing onerous regulations, more nuanced solutions should be adopted soon:
“Ultimately, policy, like politics, is the art of the possible.”