Saturday 9 December 2017

Fake news

The great Will Hay channelling his inner Kamal Ahmed

The BBC's plans to educate school children about fake news was the main topic on this week's Newswatch (fact!).

A couple of unrelated people with identical surnames discussed the issue  (another fact!) . 

This post will feature a transcript of their discussion (yet another fact!).


As you'll see from the transcript below, the BBC regards its new project - going into schools and teaching them to spot fake news - as part of its inform, educate and entertain remit.

Other may see it differently. 

Encouraging pupils to view news reporting sceptically can't be anything but a good thing. Don't believe any source until you are sure you can trust it (and even then beware of possible biases and errors). That's what schools should be teaching anyhow of course (and hopefully are). 

When the BBC goes into schools, what will they be using as examples of fake news? Will they be going after social media only, or will they be going after traditional media outlets too? If the latter, will they be concentrating on newspapers (and if so which newspapers?) or concentrating on broadcast media as well? And if the latter, which broadcast media will they use examples from? Will they use any examples from the BBC?

(And, if they need them, we here at ITBB - and David over at the other News-watch - have some excellent examples they can use!)

It's fascinating that the example the BBC is particularly focusing on - and has been focusing on for some time now (e.g. Nick Robinson on Today) - is that notorious Russian bot-propagated photo of the Muslim girl looking at her phone on Westminster Bridge while others are tending to victims of the Islamist terrorist attack. 

That's the example Amol Rajan, the BBC's Media Editor, uses and that the BBC's own coverage of its new project has used too. 

I, like many of you no doubt, saw that image and the accompanying tweet - and various accompanying retweets - at the time. It spread. Someone posted it across various comments threads over at Biased BBC, and some eagerly rose to the bait. Others (I'm very glad to say) questioned and condemned it, demanding context and wondering how anyone could presume to know what was actually going on in the girl's mind. 

So even social media sites that the BBC would doubtless label 'echo chambers' did not act as echo chambers over this. Plenty of people actually used their brains...

...and I know that because I followed their discussions about it very closely at the time.

Will BBC types going into schools - who doubtless did not follow such discussions closely at the time - reflect that fact? 

That fake news image of the Muslim girl raises other questions about the BBC's role too. Why the strong focus on that particular example?

As you'll see from the transcript, the pupils taught about it by the BBC's Amol drew the conclusion that it was unfair to Muslims - and, yes, it undoubtedly was unfair to Muslims (and intended to be divisive), but, fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the BBC making a very particular point here.

Maybe school children should also be taught to sniff out agendas being pursued by allegedly impartial broadcasters?

And, of course, the BBC is itself far from innocent over this. From Jon Donnison's infamous 'Gaza' tweet that was actually from Syria to the BBC's inflammatory reporting of the death of a Polish man in Harlow soon after the Brexit referendum, the BBC has failed on the fake news front many times too. 

Indeed, the Corporation's doom-laden post-referendum Brexit coverage could be considered 'fake news' on bulk. BBC soothsayers' predictions of woe, woe and thrice woe have, again and again, proved to be premature at best and complete kangaroo's testicles (for any fellow IACGMOOH fans) at worst. 

My main memory of the BBC's overnight referendum result coverage was watching long-faced Kamal Ahmed scaring the living daylights out of BBC viewers (including me) with his 'endtimes' grimness about the immediate market reaction. It felt like 'told you so' gloating to me at the time. Even if it wasn't, it certainly was doom-mongering. Is spreading doom and gloom over neutral facts (and market fluctuations) fake news? Or just bias?

Samira and Kamal

Anyhow, here's Mr. Ahmed and Ms. Ahmed:

Samira Ahmed: Now, the term 'fake news' may have first been popularised by Donald Trump during his presidential election campaign, but it's become a major concern, not just because politicians throw it at journalism they don't like, but also because of the evidence of fake stories created and spread, especially through social media platforms, notably in the run-up to the US election. But how easy is it just got fake news? There has been rapid change in how young people consume the news, and the BBC is starting a scheme to help secondary school pupils identify it. The BBC's media editor spoke at six formers in Kent. 
Amol Rajan: How do you consume news everyday? 

Pupil 1: I'll be honest, it's mainly through Snapchat. 

Amol RajanPut your hand up if you're on Snapchat....To gauge their news literacy, we showed the pupils an image that was shared thousands of times on social media. It depicts a Muslim woman after the Westminster Bridge terror attack. 

Pupil 2: Yeah, she seems like she's not caring, and maybe she's sorry, or she doesn't realise, who knows?

Amol RajanBut this was fake news. The image was attached to a tweet from an account linked to Russia, and our pupils did detect anti-Muslim prejudice. 

Pupil 3: I think if she was of a different race this tweet would never have been put out and it's really wrong that people feel the need to do that. 
From March, up to a thousand schools will be offered mentoring in class, online or at events by BBC journalists, including from the likes of Huw Edwards and the BBC's economic editor Kamal Ahmed, and Kamal joins us now. Welcome to Newswatch. Have you ever been caught out by fake news? 

Kamal AhmedI don't think so, no. Obviously we do our best to make sure we're not. I was once almost caught out. A Mark Carney Twitter feed started, who's the Governor of the Bank of England, and I must admit, for a moment I thought, my goodness, the Governor of the Bank of England is going to start tweeting. That was the only time I thought to myself, check yourself, Kamal! Is that really believable? And I think when you're thinking about fake news, that is probably the first thing to do. Is what you're seeing really believable? And as soon as you've checked, is Mark Carney going to be on Twitter anywhere else, everyone was saying, well, of course, the Governor of the Bank of England couldn't do that. So I think it's thinking about what's the source of the story, does it look believable, is it being reported anywhere else? And I suppose the responsibility is on us as the BBC to help people navigate this new world of news that they live in. 

Samira AhmedWell, let's talk about that, because people might say, why does the BBC feel it needs to do anything about this? 

Kamal AhmedI think we do have a role, if the BBC's role, its mission, is to educate, inform and entertain. Educate is part of what we do, and I think it's an important part of the conversation. And also I think, Samira, for us, we need to listen as well. We need to listen to young people. Amol Rajan's piece there was very interesting, what people felt about some of the news information they were being given. So it's a learning exercise for us as well. 

Samira AhmedLet's look at a couple of the things you mentioned there. We saw Amol going into schools, as you said, what actually are people like him and you doing when you do go into them and when you start going into more? 

Kamal AhmedWell, I'm going back to my old school in the New Year in London. I think what I would love to do, and I think this is what the BBC is planning, is just go through some of those stories and talk to the young people, the sixth formers and others, about what they think about the news coverage and how it works. And do they think about, is it fake news? Is a deliberately misleading piece of information? 

Samira AhmedIt's very clear that young audiences, particularly in their teens and early 20s, they don't consume traditional curated TV news bulletins like we all used to. Do BBC editors understand their world enough? 

Kamal AhmedThe BBC certainly does. I would not claim myself that we should say 'We understand the world that young people live in' but, certainly, we have all sorts of content on Facebook on Twitter, on Instagram, we have a piece of our organisation called News Labs, which looks at how news is shared in different ways on mobile. Newsbeat and Newsround, they are on lots of these social media outlets. 

Samira AhmedIn terms of who you send out to spread that message, if you don't mind me saying so, apart from Tina Daheley, who has worked on Radio One, one might think you're not actually of that generation. You know, who would be the right people to be sending, and is it people like you? 

Kamal AhmedWell, I think it's young people, but I think it's about showing that the BBC takes it seriously at whatever level in this organisation you happen to be and whatever age you are. I'm certainly no celebrity, and I wouldn't claim that I am, but I think I work at the front line for the BBC in economics, which lots of young people talk about and are very interested in - intergenerational unfairness, inequality, those type of issues are issues I cover - and I think if I can help people navigate that and also listen to that, I think that is of advantage, I hope, to them, and it certainly will be to us. 

Samira AhmedKamal Ahmed, thank you. 


  1. A very good article, Craig, worthy of wider distribution.
    This fast moving and muddy take over of social narrative is becoming very worrying. I hope some kids record these sessions and broadcast them on the fear-net.
    I have a poisonous fantasy of sending my niece into one of these sessions with a list of BBC un-friendly questions.
    But therein lies the rub - those questions would be poisonous in the current sphere of group think, I would be using my niece, and my niece would become a social outcast. BBC management are very aware of that. The 2 minute hate may become a reality introduced by good intention.

    1. Thank you, Enough. Kids recording these sessions and then posting them online - and commenting on them - would in itself be a wonderful exercise in encouraging the spread of free-thinking (an urgent need at the moment).

  2. I've heard Kamal Ahmed peddle lots of Fake News. One I recall was telling viewers we could leave the EU and stay in the Single Market. This is absolutely untrue. The EU Commission sets out clearly on its website, in terms that a secondary school if not a BBC journalist could understand, that only EU Member States can be members of the Single Market. But at the time that was useful propaganda for the Remain camp - that staying in the Single Market after Brexit was an option - and so Fake News Kamal followed that meme.

  3. Schools teach children stranger danger - if they don't feel "comfortable" with something, they tell young people, there's probably something wrong and they should get out of the situation.

    How many people among BBC's viewers and listeners feel "comfortable" with the BBC's grooming? How many feel comfortable with its transgender agenda, with the idea that it's racist to be concerned about mass immigration running at something like 5 million per decade, or with its presentation of followers of Islam as universally patriotic, integrated and progressive? A very small minority of Guardian readers I would suggest.


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