An epistemic break has gripped the British Isles — a crisis of understanding of what is true, what is false and how we collectively decide.

Modern culture’s greatest institutions — of all four estates — are called into question on a daily basis. The government makes a declaration. A newscaster calls it false. A blogger claims something else. And your Best Facebook Friend says they’re all liars, before adding a new news link.

Whether we call it “computational propaganda”, viral disinformation, or simply “Fake News”, the civil society and its citizens seemingly struggle now more than ever with truth and lies.

Government inquiries into fake news have been launched in several countries, including the UK’s own Parliamentary Select Committee investigation, adding evidence to the prospect of a crisis state. Just consider that according to Demos, 67% of the British public are concerned about fake news.

How did we get here? We propose a few ideas in our own submission to the Select Committee, pointing out that fake news is now one of the most powerful forces countering democracy, that the rise of social media has changed the nature and distribution of real news, and that fake news contributes to radical ideologies that encourage acts of violence, from radical Islam through white nationalism.

We make several recommendations as well, including establishing programmes to promote critical thinking skills around digital and social media, helping citizens separate the truth from the hype.

Was there ever a halcyon time when truth was truth, without dispute? Doubtful. Propaganda has been with us from the beginning of recorded civilisation, but democracy is a process, not a destination — all the more reason that constant vigilance, long-view approaches, and ongoing programmes of media education and literacy are vital to maintaining the interests and ideals of the civil society.

Read Ci’s submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee’s investigation into fake news on our app, The Observatory for a Connected Society.

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