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Labour's Tom Watson has drafted in fellow MP Michael Dugher to work on an inquiry into fake news on social media – partly prompted by concerns about what the spread of inaccurate information could do to the left-wing party's own support base.
BuzzFeed News understands that Dugher, who previously served as shadow culture secretary until he was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn in January, will now help run the project, which hopes to tackle fake news stories created for profit and purposefully fake stories published in order to discredit political opponents.
Watson, the party's deputy leader and shadow culture secretary, announced the inquiry on Monday and although its final form has yet to be decided, it could involve public evidence sessions with interested individuals called to testify.
In article for The Independent, which cited BuzzFeed News' research on fake news during the 2016 US presidential election, Labour's deputy leader said fake news “cannot be healthy for democracies, which operate on the assumption that voters make choices based on facts and information that are for the most part accurate and truthful”.
Watson, who spent years campaigning against Sun owner Rupert Murdoch and attacking newspapers involved in the phone hacking scandal, is also understood to be keen to avoid the inquiry being dragged into a dispute between old and new formats of media.
The inquiry will also enable Labour to publicly back responsible journalism, positioning the party away from the sources of unverified information such as the array of Facebook groups and new websites that have built up since Corbyn became Labour leader. Many have influential readerships among the Labour support base thanks to their going viral despite sometimes having loose editorial standards.
“It's not about online and offline news, it's about people who are actual journalists and people who are just making shit up,” said one source working on the project, who insisted it was not an opportunistic intervention but would instead be a long-running campaign run by the Labour deputy leader.
They highlighted how The Canary, one fast-growing pro-Corbyn site, recently ran a story on Watson appearing at an event held by the centrist Labour First group under the headline “A launch date for the Corbyn coup 2.0 has just been fixed, and guess who’s leading the charge?”
Watson will seek to challenge the government in parliament on the issue, while also trying to work with the likes of Facebook and Twitter to find a solution rather than attacking them directly for the problem of fake news going viral.
“It can be tempting to share a meme showing 'what the mainstream media won’t tell you', but sometimes the much-derided 'MSM' won’t tell you something because it checked it out and it wasn’t true. That's why we need good journalists and good journalism,” Watson said.
“I've never been afraid to take on the mainstream media when it abuses its power or acts illegally or unethically – by hacking phones, bribing public officials, or going through people's bins. And complaints about the 'biased MSM' are sometimes justified. But the solution does not lie in the creation of a form of pseudo-journalism that is even more biased, less rigorous, and often based on downright lies.”