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Embrace the internet - trolls, fakes news, warts and all - says new book

The creation of ‘fake news’ is unlikely to decline “while there is money to be made and influence to gain”, according to an academic from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

In a new book Dr Paul Bernal argues that despite attempts to bring in legal measures, for example against internet companies, there are still strong incentives for people to continue to create and share fake news.

Dr Bernal, who specialises in internet privacy and human rights, says fake news should be kept in context. Despite being blamed for contributing to the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result, he says it is not a new problem - fake news has existed throughout history - and it is easy to blame fake news for deeper problems.

Fake news is just one of the topics covered in Dr Bernal’s book The Internet, Warts and All, published today by Cambridge University Press. From surveillance to trolling, copyright to the ‘right to be forgotten’, the book addresses a range of issues surrounding free speech, privacy and truth on the internet.

On the subject of how to tackle fake news, Dr Bernal suggests that dealing with distortions in the ‘normal’ media needs two things: 1) The existence of good, relatively trustworthy media as a benchmark and a test; 2) Better knowledge and understanding - more ‘savviness’ of those consuming media.

“Creating fake news seems to work - which is attractive in itself - and it gets shares and clicks, which in a commercial internet means that it makes money,” said Dr Bernal, a senior lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law.

“While there is money to be made and influence to gain it is hard to see the creation of fake news declining. That means that the key question is how to stop fake news influencing politics rather than how to stop fake news.

“What cannot be emphasised enough is that without a ‘real’ media that can be trusted - and that is trusted - fake news has nothing to oppose it. For it to be possible to rely on trustworthy news sources, first and most importantly there have to be trustworthy news sources.

“Secondly, we, the consumers of media, need to learn and learn quickly. Understanding that we need to reduce our reliance on the internet giants, particularly as our route to information, is the most important part of this. Until this happens it is unlikely that the problems associated with fake news will do anything but grow.”

In the book Dr Bernal explains that the fake news phenomenon is neither an accident nor a result of the systems of Facebook, Twitter, Google and so forth being used in wrong or unforeseeable ways. It comes about through Facebook, Twitter and Google being used exactly as they are designed to be used. That makes dealing with the problem all but impossible without challenging the basic ways that Facebook, Twitter and Google operate.

“The spreading of fake news and similar stories in particular is not a bug that can be easily ironed out of Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram and so on. It is an almost inevitable consequence of the nature of such systems,” writes Dr Bernal.

“Whether the law can be used as an effective tool against fake news is a difficult question. Laws that might apply to fake news have been enacted all over the world for a very long time, however, they can struggle in the face of freedom of speech, which must include the right to tell stories, to say things that you cannot prove, even to lie.”

The Internet, Warts and All is the result of years of research and blogging by Dr Bernal, as well as discussions and collaborations. It also draws on previous studies by other researchers in the field.

Using legal and practical case studies, it busts a number of myths and illusions about the internet - including the neutrality of algorithms and the permanence of information, the impact of surveillance and the nature of privacy.

It shows how trolling and fake news arise and why current moves to deal with them are doomed to failure. Dr Bernal suggests a way forward - by embracing the unruly nature of the Internet.

“One of the key points made in this book is that the Internet is messy, unruly and unpredictable. We have to accept that if we are to make any progress,” said Dr Bernal.

“The examples used can help expose the patterns that emerge when the different issues are considered together. They demonstrate the often unnoticed or underappreciated links between privacy and freedom of speech and the overriding issues of power, community and the public interest.”

In September Dr Bernal will be speaking as part of The Register lecture series, on Saving the internet, fake news warts and all. The event takes place in London on Thursday September 27 at 7pm. For further information and to book visit: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/07/26/the_register_lecture_accepting_the_internet_warts_and_all/

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