Fake News and Fake Think Tanks – Britain’s Democracy Under Threat
Dr Hans Gutbrod is the Executive Director of Transparify, an initiative promoting greater transparency and integrity in policy research and advocacy worldwide. He holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.
The ability of fake news to influence public debates and democratic processes, including elections, has recently caused worldwide concern. Should we be worried about fake news influencing UK elections?
Let’s start by looking at a fake news episode from France. In December 2016, the Paris-based Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA) nominated the Russian president for a Nobel Peace Prize, claiming that “[Putin] is the only one who is truly fighting terrorism.” The story was carried by at least one global wire service and got traction in the mainstream UK media as well as in news outlets as far away as Indiaand Japan.
The CPFA describes itself as a think tank, thereby giving the impression that it is an institution committed to serious research and intellectual integrity, and thus a legitimate voice in policy debates. However, the CPFA’s website contains no indication that it has ever undertaken any policy research – but many editors covered its press release nonetheless. For example, the Daily Mail uncritically reported that:
“[Putin] was put forward by the head of a French think-tank which focuses on geopolitics and government policies. Fabien Baussart, president of the French Centre for Political and International Relations (CFPA), said he had officially nominated the Russian President as he believes he is the only world leader truly trying to bring down the likes of ISIS.”
Screenshot of headline in the Daily Mail
Source: Daily Mail website, UK, 22 December 2016
The Daily Mail also failed to note that the CPFA does not disclose who funds its operations, leaving unclear whether it is backed by powerful groups that may have vested interests in the policies it advocates for. This opacity should have immediately raised red flags, because most respectable think tanks in Europe and the United States now routinely disclose on their websites who their funders are. For example, the majority of large British think tanks are financially transparent:
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Transparency of UK think tanks 2017 (4-5 stars = transparent; 0-1 stars = highly opaque)
Source: Transparify report on UK think tanks, 2017
So what is the CPFA trying to hide? An internet search provides a vital clue: Its president Fabien Baussart has been frequently described as a former lobbyist for Russian oligarchs in French newspapers and intelligence journals. In hindsight, the entire Nobel nomination appears to have been a pro-Putin propaganda stunt launched by a front group for Russian interests. (Putin’s 2013 nomination by another group of questionable provenance, the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World, had also gained media traction in the UK.)
Four literature reviews compiled by Transparify show that this case is not an exception. Editors and journalists often fail to distinguish between genuine think tanks that conduct independent policy research, and ‘fake tanks’ that abuse the label to surreptitiously promote the vested interests of hidden paymasters.
Due to the financial opacity of fake tanks, it is impossible to tell whether those who pull the strings behind the scene are domestic or foreign players. For example, the London-based Adam Smith Institute is so opaque that it is not only unclear who gives the money, but also which entities spend it. At Transparify, our research found that foreign contributions to the organisation’s American branch appear to be being used to pay for policy and advocacy work in the UK.
Such hidden influence is especially worrying when self-proclaimed ‘think tanks’ use the media to shape coverage of party politics in the run-up to an election. For example, the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) released a statement in the run-up to the recent UK general election denouncing one party’s manifesto as “delusional and incoherent”. (The IEA has since taken down the statement from its website, but an archived version is still available online.) Even though the IEA did not back up its claims with a study, and refuses to disclose who funds it, at least two major UK news outlets covered its commentary, thus providing traction to a dark money group’s apparent effort to tilt the electoral scale.
Screenshot of media coverage of IEA statement
Source: Google News search, 16 May 2017
So yes, there are good reasons to be worried about fake news from fake tanks influencing the British polls. Although there are rules to ensure there is transparency around spending on campaigning at elections, this does not cover editorial content, and there are no mandatory requirements for charities or think tanks to disclose who funds them. In short, there appear to be no effective legal or regulatory barriers preventing fake tanks backed by secretive players from setting up shop in London and using attention-grabbing press releases to generate fake news.
So what is to be done?
Attempting to solve the problem through new laws and regulations is unlikely to be effective and may do more harm than good. So before we fall into the Orwellian trap of calling on the state to tightly regulate political speech, or private sector companies to act as internet censors, we should focus on improving editorial decision-making.
Most major news outlets – like the Telegraph, Guardian and Financial Times – have editorial and commercial guidelines that are intended to ensure the integrity and accuracy of their content. These are welcome statements of intent, yet they are sometimes not translated into practice. For example, the BBC’s mission is to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”, and thanks to its license fee income of over GBP 3.7 billion a year, it is not exposed to budget pressures to the same extent as most for-profit news operations are. Yet despite its public mandate and public financing, the BBC frequently cites dark money groups and fields their talking heads as if they were reliable sources of information and impartial sources of political analysis. As a respected provider of news and current affairs, it should know better.
So before we set off to hunt trolls in cyberspace, we should challenge established media outlets to live up to the standards they espouse, and ask them to refuse to provide a public platform for fake tanks and dark money groups of all political leanings. As we struggle to differentiate between fact and fiction, quality journalism is needed more than ever. But without greater diligence by the fourth estate, our media risks becoming the mouthpiece of propagandists rather than a source of reliable information.