Lies, propaganda and fake news: A challenge for our age

Source: BBC

By Richard Gray

Who was the first black president of America? It’s a fairly simple question with a straightforward answer. Or so you would think. But plug the query into a search engine and the facts get a little fuzzy.For a special series launching this week, BBC Future Now asked a panel of experts about the grand challenges we face in the 21st Century – and many named the breakdown of trusted sources of information as one of the most pressing problems today. In some ways, it’s a challenge that trumps all others. Without a common starting point – a set of facts that people with otherwise different viewpoints can agree on – it will be hard to address any of the problems that the world now faces.

When I checked Google, the first result – given special prominence in a box at the top of the page – informed me that the first black president was a man called John Hanson in 1781. Apparently, the US has had seven black presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower. Other search engines do little better. The top results on Yahoo and Bing pointed me to articles about Hanson as well.

Welcome to the world of “alternative facts”. It is a bewildering maze of claim and counterclaim, where hoaxes spread with frightening speed on social media and spark angry backlashes from people who take what they read at face value. Controversial, fringe views about US presidents can be thrown centre stage by the power of search engines. It is an environment where the mainstream media is accused of peddling “fake news” by the most powerful man in the world. Voters are seemingly misled by the very politicians they elected and even scientific research – long considered a reliable basis for decisions – is dismissed as having little value.

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