Ian Hislop: ‘Fake news is terrifying because people will believe anything they read online’

Ian Hislop reveals the dangers of fake news in a new BBC4 documentary

These days, it seems like the phrase “fake news” is never out of the headlines. But, as Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You stalwart Ian Hislop discovers in his fascinating new documentary, fake news was actually around centuries before President Trump started bandying the term about.

We caught up with Ian Hislop, 59, to separate the wheat from the chaff…

Is it Donald Trump’s fault that fake news is… well, news?!

Ian Hislop: “We’re all more aware of fake news because of President Trump… But when he talks about fake news what he means is real news that he doesn’t like! What I mean by fake news is information people know isn’t true that they deliberately disseminate for their own purposes.”

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How dangerous is fake news?

IH: “Fake news is terrifying because people will believe anything they read online that some kid in a bedroom has put up. But then when perfectly authoritative sources say something has happened, they’ll say, ‘How can we tell?’ I want to shake people and say either things happen or they don’t, events take place or not – it’s not just a matter of opinion! Losing that idea of what’s true and what’s not is incredibly dangerous.”

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Who do you talk to in the programme?

IH: “I meet an American who makes up fake news. He was bizarre because we know there are these Russian backed factories full of bots just churning out complete rubbish, but he was a guy who was just making stuff up. You think, ‘Why are you telling thousands of people that the Pope supports Trump?’ Is it funny? No, people believe it.”

Our man in New York City: Ian reports from the Big Apple

Why are we so susceptible to fake news?

IH: “As readers we have to stop believing in news stories just because we want them to be true. Also social media and the internet have to be treated as publishers and not just platforms. They have to accept responsibility for people telling lies online.”

How long has fake news been around?

IH: “A long time… In 1835 a US newspaper claimed unicorns lived on the moon. For six weeks they serialised this extraordinary story of unicorns and bat-like men on the moon and they made an unbelievable amount of money out of it.”

What are the potential consequences of fake news?

IH: “In 1898, William Randolph Hearst, one of the first big media barons, more or less started a Spanish-American war with a fake news story to boost circulation. He claimed the Spanish were responsible for a huge bomb blowing up a ship called the USS Maine, but in truth the ship blew itself up after a coal fire.”

Have I Got News For You is 30 next year – how will you mark the occasion?

IH: “Will we celebrate? I imagine a lavish BBC party with one crisp and a single cupcake! No, I think everyone will probably ignore it all – but the show is always enormous fun to do.”

Capitol fellow: Ian in front of the Congress building in Washington

Is to hard to keep up with the news these days?

IH: “It is is changing so quickly. Anyone could be Prime Minister by the 30th anniversary show – it could be Paul Merton! In the last series we even had a period where the news was moving so quickly that the floor manager, Steve, kept coming on in the middle of recordings and saying, this person has resigned or that person has resigned. But it’s certainly great material.”

Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True Story is on BBC4 on Monday 7 October at 9pm