My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for making this debate possible. She, along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Harding, and others have performed off-stage heroics recently on behalf of young people in this country. They do it by continually looking to the future, rather than harking back to “Muffin The Mule” and the golden age of “Blue Peter”.
I teach media studies weekly in a number of universities in this country and overseas and I recently made a slide for my students that simply states, “Fake news is a wrecking ball”. I go on to explain that democracy is a fragile concept, and that, just like a wrecking ball, fake news once released is blind to the destruction it causes: destruction to facts, to complexity, to reputations and therefore to that most valuable commodity of all, trust—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, has taught me, to trustworthiness.
The Times columnist Hugo Rifkind set off something of a firestorm just before Christmas when he rightly called out the complicity—albeit possibly careless—of Twitter, Facebook and others in the enabling role they played in the distortion of news through social media prior to both the EU referendum and last year’s general election. I very much liked his closing line:
“Our political class needs to stop rolling their eyes and start paying attention. If the facts don’t move them to care, maybe the humiliation will”.
I believe that humiliation is about to break over us in the form of ever more conclusive evidence of the degree of pernicious activity that went into achieving Vladimir Putin’s wet dream: Britain’s detachment from the European Union, and I stress “Union”.
Last year the Data Protection Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, started a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. She said this recently:
“It’s a complex and far-reaching investigation, involving over 30 organisations including political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms … A number of organisations have freely co-operated with us, answered our questions and engaged with the investigation. But, others are making it difficult. In some instances we have been unable to obtain the specific details of work that contributed to the Referendum campaign and I will be using every available legal tool and working with authorities overseas to seek answers on behalf of UK citizens”.
She said that she had been,
“forced … to invoke our statutory powers to make formal demands for information”.
That is pretty serious stuff.
This is made all the more serious when we consider the outcome of research recently conducted by the University of Stanford Graduate School of Education, which revealed that 80% of middle-school students could not distinguish between real news and content paid for by an advertiser. Sam Wineberg, the author of that report, said at the time of its release:
“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true”.
This is not helped by the fact that in 2015, 64% of nine year-olds in the US were found not to read at or above proficiency levels. Before any complacency is allowed to set in, it is worth noting that our figures are not much better. So, what do we do about it?
Time does not allow me to go into too many possible solutions, although some exist. I recommend that anyone interested checks out the website of a five year-old organisation named Newsela, which seeks to address this problem in the classroom by using news content as a teaching tool. It has licensing arrangements with, among others, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Bloomberg. Encouraging the use of the best and most reliable news content as a classroom resource at primary level could, in my judgment, do very little harm and possibly a great deal of good.
Finally, there are a number of other ways in which trust could be developed and the worst impacts of social media reduced, but to do that will require the wholehearted attention of the Government in general and the Department for Education in particular. This is not simply a problem that needs to be addressed. It is a very real present-day crisis and one that deserves to be taken far more seriously.