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President's column

15 January 18

From First World War propaganda to modern-day fake news, too much presentation of information goes against our legal training. But we can use social media to spread good news

by Graham Matthews

Happy new year! So 2018 is here already. It does not seem like four years since I travelled through France to commemorate the anniversary of the start of the “war to end all wars”. Over 10 days we rode the line of the retreat from Mons towards Paris, visiting cemeteries and battle sites accompanied by a former cavalry officer turned military historian. The British retreated. The other side lost a lot more lives, so we reported it as a victory. Honest interpretation or fake news?

The journey was an amazing and sobering experience. I saw the grave of a British soldier who died on 10 November 1918. How pointless that must have seemed to his family. Now we will this year mark 100 years since the end of that awful war, which of course was not the end of all wars.What a different world we live in 100 years on. So many went to war for an ideal, for their King, for their country. I’ve met a few former First World War soldiers. 

Back in those days, newspapers didn’t report every setback. The information stream to the public was not as open as might have been thought. It was called propaganda. The Government played down losses and defeats to keep morale up. Now with phones capturing images and with global communications, there is little that happens of note that is not reported. That brings its own challenges, and opportunities for so-called fake news (why is it always bad or critical?), sharing misleading material across social media. Too many rely on headlines and social media as their primary source of news. A few words taken out of context can spark outraged comment. As lawyers we are trained to examine the facts, but are you ever guilty of believing fake news?

Power of perception

Despite social media sites clamping down on accounts that distribute it, fake news is a threat. It’s no wonder that just about every organisation and politician (but apparently not Donald Trump) has a communications team working to keep their spokespeople on message and to prevent the odd side comment being taken out of context. Sometimes I worry that concerns about perception dominate thinking, rather than a proper consideration of the facts or arguments. Maybe it’s due to being time poor, but it seems that many do not bother to read to the end of the argument. It has all to do with appearances. If it looks wrong (even if it is not wrong), it’s wrong.

As lawyers, we’re taught to look at all the evidence, evaluate the facts, and reach a conclusion. If we just went with perception we’d have no not proven verdicts. Mind you, we’d save a fortune on trials. We could just post a few headlines and the judge could decide on what the public might think.

There is a public appetite for the humiliation of those who dare to seek professional, political or even celebrity status. It is difficult to understand why anyone would step forward for public service, yet many still do. If improper behaviour is alleged, there is certainly an argument for people in the public eye to step back while an investigation is underway. However, if they are exonerated, surely as much fuss should be made of that as the original allegation; but it seems it never is. Mud sticks.

Positive message

All that said, I don’t want to come across as a relic opposed to any kind of digital communication. At the Society for example, the wealth of information and support which we provide for our members and in the public interest is phenomenal and would have been simply unaffordable pre-internet. And social media has the capacity to work wonders for very worthy causes. Awareness and support of our own Baublefest campaign grew exponentially as a result of Facebook and Twitter posts. Look out for results of exactly how much YOU raised, and if you didn’t donate… what better time than the new year?

Once I’m no longer responsible as your President I think I might start using digital media to create positive fake news which for a few moments may bring a smile. You never know, it may then become self-fulfilling. One bit of information that isn’t fake is that over 90% of the public think solicitors are trustworthy. That’s one of many things that makes me proud to be a solicitor. 

Graham Matthews is President of the Law Society of Scotland – president@lawscot.org.uk; Twitter: @grahamgmatthews

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