Michael Gove doesn’t have the look of a cat-strangler. You could leave your miniature dachshund in the care of the Environment Secretary and, at worst, it might find itself embroiled in a hapless Tory leadership plot.
There are, however, a great many people out there — perhaps millions — who think Mr Gove would gladly throttle a tabby or deport your dachshund to Düsseldorf in a fit of Brexiteer pique. That they believe this is testament to the viral quality of outrageous claims and an object lesson in the awesome, terrifying power of social media.
Our story begins not online but in a routine House of Commons debate on Brexit. Two weeks ago, MPs voted on an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the behemoth legislation that will transfer much of existing EU law to our statute books. Green MP Caroline Lucas’s amendment called on the government to incorporate a Brussels protocol on animal sentience into UK law. Government whips reasoned that the Animal Welfare Act already enshrined the principle that creatures experience emotions and instructed MPs to vote down the motion, eager not to let the Brexit law become any more bogged down than it already is. The measure was defeated and ministers didn’t give it a second thought.
Then social media got a hold of the story, aided by a sensationalist and misleading post from the Independent, a former newspaper turned online clickbait factory, that told readers ‘The Tories have voted that animals can’t feel pain’. A meme was born and exploded onto the nation’s social networks as users denounced the government for a rare terrible idea that it hadn’t actually proposed. The lurid tale of Tory villainy has been posted hundreds of thousands of times and its reach will now be in the millions, far in excess of fact-checking articles explaining the more complex, and boring, facts. In the age of Facebook, a lie is shared halfway around the world before the truth can remember its password.
Michael Gove laments: ‘There is an unhappy tendency now for people to believe that the raw and authentic voice of what’s shared on social media is more reliable than what is said in Hansard or on the BBC.’
It’s a bit rich for him to huff at political dissembling given his role in the Vote Leave campaign. If I had a pound for every one of his adulterine assertions, I could afford to give the NHS £350million a week. Nonetheless, he is right on the principle. Today, it is a sap-headed myth about being beastly to bichon frises but tomorrow it could be a fast-moving falsehood that ends a career, costs a life, or starts a war. Websites once used to foist your child’s recondite artwork on unsuspecting university friends and argue about the Apprentice until someone got compared to Hitler are now shaping the national dialogue on issues that matter.
‘Fake news’ is not just a spurious cry by a disgruntled politician. It is a very real problem, which is why Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke deserves credit for refusing to be interviewed by RT, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda network. However, as American Democrats will ruefully attest, Russia’s real influence has been through phoney facts pushed on Twitter and Facebook, a campaign that may have helped swing the 2016 Presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour.
Those spreading the fake news about animal sentience do no see themselves in this light. Many are the very people who bemoan the errors and deceptions of the mainstream media, or ‘MSM’ (an epithet as much as an acronym). Trust in newspapers is dismayingly low and our industry deserves a fair whack of the blame. As Hillsborough and Leveson exposed, bad apples were allowed to rot, blind eyes turned, and cultures given room to fester. Journalism has learned lessons and made changes in the last five years, though there is more to do.
But what social media partisans have in mind when they excoriate the ‘MSM’ are not the bad parts of journalism but the good parts. Solid, well-sourced reporting on Jeremy Corbyn’s associations with anti-Semites and terrorists, impertinent questions about the economic foundations of an independent Scotland, Newsnight investigations into ministerial mishaps — this is what they object to. From some dark recess of the human psyche has loosed the notion that facts are the enemy of righteousness and holding the ‘correct’ view dispenses with the burden of proof.
The animal sentience fallacy is a particular kind of fake news — the virtuous lie, a fabrication in service of what its originator believes to be a higher truth. This is also why so much viral content swaggers with violent headlines about ‘destroying’ or ‘demolishing’ a disfavoured person or idea. The object is no longer to win a debate but to pummel the other side so no debate can take place. The unexamined life isn’t just worth living, it’s become a political movement.
An informed citizenry, with access to commonly accepted facts and standards, is a fundamental plank of democracy. Remove it and the whole enterprise could come tumbling down. Yet social media’s astonishing power remains unregulated. If a newspaper publishes ‘inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’, it could find itself tangling with IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If Sky News decided to invite on only Labour supporters for a week, channel bosses would be hauled over the coals by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom. But Facebook can host any number of mendacious allegations and there is no monitor the user can complain to.
Google and Facebook are platforms but they are publishers too. By what rationale do they escape the kinds of regulation that loom over broadcasters and the Press? The idea of content regulation of any kind gets my libertarian hackles up but there must be consistency. Either all publishers should be regulated or none should be.
Michael Gove isn’t coming for your pet but fake news is coming for your democracy.
The controversy surrounding Police Scotland seems to grow by the day. Chief Constable Phil Gormley has stepped aside amid an investigation and a review has damned the force’s handling of the murder of Elizabeth Bowe, who was denied 999 assistance on the night she was killed by her brother.
Now Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins has been suspended by the Scottish Police Authority and an investigation launched into criminal conduct. ACC Higgins denies any wrongdoing.
The endemic problems at the top of the force are troubling but we must not miss an important distinction. Police Scotland is arguably in crisis but policing in Scotland is not. We are fortunate to have a great many brave, hard-working police officers who regularly put themselves in harm’s way to keep the rest of us safe. Their integrity cannot be in doubt and their record in tackling crime speaks for itself.
The top brass have a job to do restoring confidence in the hierarchy but public faith in the thin blue line remains as strong as ever.
Epic scenes across the nation on Black Friday, as literally threes and fours of shoppers mobbed the high streets for the chance to get a fiver off a cappuccino maker they would never use. Greedy retailers tried to whip us into a credit card melting frenzy but this year we resisted. Makes you proud to be British.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.