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National Science and Media Museum

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Truth, lies and the pursuit of a good story have always influenced the news.

Since the US presidential election in November 2016, ‘fake news’ has become a buzz phrase. But it’s far from a 21st-century phenomenon: propaganda, doctored images and unverified statistics can be found throughout the history of human communications.

In this exhibition, we investigated how and why these stories are created—and how new technologies are changing the ways information is spread across the globe.

‘Fake news’ for political gain

Sean Spicer, the first White House press secretary of President Donald Trump’s tenure, told reporters that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration ceremony was ‘the largest ever’. This claim came under scrutiny around the world when photographs of the Trump event and Barack Obama’s in 2009 were placed side by side. 

Going viral

This year marks the 100th anniversary of an event that is still considered among the biggest public hoaxes: the Cottingley Fairies photographs. In 1917 two girls took a camera—now part of our collection—to the bottom of their garden and returned home with what they claimed were photographs of real fairies. It would be more than 60 years before the the cousins admitted to faking the images.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!

In 2017, stories in the British press created controversy around the claim that Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn had failed to bow his head to the Queen at the state opening of parliament. In fact, no such protocol exists—but once the story of the disrespectful ‘snub’ was reported, its spread was difficult to control.

The Daily Herald picture library, which holds thousands of photographs used by the newspaper during its 52-year existence (1912–1964), includes many examples of images apparently altered to back up a story angle. 

Mistaken reporting

Following the sinking of the Titanic, early news reports erroneously claimed that thousands of passengers were safe. Papers from the archive of the University of Bradford’s Peace Studies department show these claims can be traced back to unverified and unsigned telegrams, reported as fact by newspapers.

‘Fake news’ for profit

In 2016, Veles, a town in Macedonia, became the unlikely home of more than 100 pro-Trump websites. In an area with high unemployment, young people found an easy way to make money by sharing plagiarised news to Facebook groups and collecting the revenue from Google ads.

In 1835, the New York-based Sun newspaper reportedly increased its circulation with articles claiming that astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered ‘bat people’ on the Moon.

Live debate: Fake News on Trial

In a one-off event on Monday 22 January 2018, we brought together a panel of special guests to debate how museums and news organisations can deal with the challenges of ‘post-truth’ reporting. They addressed questions such as:

  • Whether media and cultural organisations share some responsibility for the emergence of the fake news phenomenon
  • How transparency and the authority of information can be maintained in an age when the media landscape is changing faster and more significantly than ever
  • What strategies can be adopted to respond to and engage with changing currents and conflicting viewpoints within society

Our guest speakers were award-winning broadcaster Samira Ahmed; Natalie Kane, Curator of Digital Design at the V&A; John Lubbock, Communications Coordinator at Wikimedia UK; and representatives from the University of Bradford’s Division of Peace Studies. The event was chaired by John O’Shea, Senior Exhibitions Manager at the National Science and Media Museum.

John O’Shea of the National Science and Media Museum introduces the panel.

Samira Ahmed discusses ‘The Art of Fake News’ and examines challenges posed to traditional broadcasting and news-cycles by disruptive online phenomena such as memes, trolling, and politicians ‘cosying up’ to the press. 

Samira Ahmed is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, and a visiting professor of Journalism at Kingston University with a special focus on culture and its overlap with politics. She presents the weekly programme Newswatch on BBC One and is one of the main presenters of the BBC Radio 4 Arts programme Front Row. Samira was previously a presenter and correspondent at Channel 4 News, where she won the Stonewall Broadcast of the Year award. She writes regularly on culture and politics in newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The New Statesman and The Mail on Sunday.

John Lubbock discusses the infrastructure behind Wikipedia, and how open and transparent governance structures could point to a way out of our current ‘fake news cycle’.

John Lubbock is Communications Coordinator at Wikimedia UK. John is responsible for promoting the work of Wikimedia and its community, engaging institutions and the public in Wikimedia’s work, and explaining what the organisation does through writing and content production.

Natalie Kane discusses aspects of digital design and online culture which reveal some of the behaviours and communities engaged in the construction of online narrative.

Natalie Kane is a curator, writer and researcher based in London. She is Curator of Digital Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. As an educator, Natalie has guest lectured at London College of Communications and Design Academy Eindhoven; is a Visiting Tutor at the Instituto de Europea Design in Barcelona; previously taught at the Royal Institute of Theatre, Cinema and Sound in Brussels; and has delivered workshops for the 2017 Malta Presidency of the Council of the European Union for Austrian artist group Time’s Up.

The lively opening panel discussion, reflecting on points raised in the three opening presentations with particular reference to where responsibility may lie for the respective institutions: the press, the museum and participatory online culture.  

Members of the panel respond to audience questions.

Fake News on Trial was presented in partnership with the Division of Peace Studies and International Development at the University of Bradford. The Division of Peace Studies and International Development combines one of the oldest Peace Studies teaching departments in the world and the legacy of BCID (Bradford Centre for International Development). BCID is a centre of global reputation which has seen knowledge transfer and the study of applied development practice since 1969.

This event formed part of Digital Cultures, a quarterly series of dialogue events running through 2017/18, supported by Arts Council England.