Facebook’s ‘fake news’ crusade may highlight major online safeguarding issue

When we think of online safety for children and young people, we naturally focus on the potential danger from areas such as sexual predators and cyber bullying. However, we tend to think less about the potential harm caused by fake news.

Our children and young people, as well as a significant number of adults, are now gathering news from social media feeds. While it is easy to dismiss this as trivial, we may well be foolish to do so, because false news and the twisting of facts are convenient tools for propaganda. Social media is a concern when it comes to the promotion of terrorism and radicalisation, and Twitter have deleted over 600,000 accounts for this reason.

The Prevent Duty Guidance specifically addresses the radicalisation of young people and clearly states that one of its overall aims is to:

“…prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support.”

The responsibility of schools, then, is to address the process of radicalisation where possible.

So, where does fake news and false reporting sit in all this? It hardly seems the same as an account actively promoting terrorism.

Facebook have recently taken a very strong stand against the dissemination of false information and false news items. Initially, they were reluctant to commit and took the stand that they were only a platform, not a broadcaster, so had no responsibility for content—however, they have now introduced a series of measures that are intended to educate users in spotting false news. This education initiative is supported by digital methods of identifying fake information sources. Facebook are clearly concerned enough to recognise this issue and do more than just indulge in a bout of sabre-rattling at the sources of fake news. As well as overhauling their news feed to give less prominence to stories that show markers of being fake news, such as low shares or repeat posts, they have deleted thousands of UK accounts.

Many groups that promote racial and religious intolerance will use the fake news story to gather likes and supporters. A good example of this is the story about Tesco refusing to serve a soldier in uniform out of fear of offending Muslim shoppers. Not only was there no basis to this story, there wasn’t even a Tesco at the address given in the so-called news item. This item is usually disseminated while requesting people to ‘support our troops’ by liking and spreading the story. While certainly less of an immediate issue than the promotion of terrorism, the viral news story can sow the seeds of prejudice and easily lead to an emotional response that escalates to bullying and persecution.

We all know how easily something like this can become the reason for marginalisation and bullying in the playground and online.  Fake news is not just about inaccuracy; it can be about influencing our children to hate.

In their recent advertisements attempting to educate people in identifying fake news, Facebook advise:

“Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories that you read, and only share articles which you know to be credible.”

It would seem then that while critical thinking and education in spotting the use of fake news may not be high on the agenda when it comes to online safety issues, it probably should be considered a potential safeguarding issue.

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