Fake news and alternative facts

Opening remarks on the occasion of this year's Acadmy Symposium in Humanities and Social Sciences at The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

Dear President, Vice Presidents, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning!

It is a pleasure for me to give the opening remarks here today on the occasion of this year's Acadmy Symposium in Humanities and Social Sciences. The share range of highly esteemed international and national academics assembled here today, shows how fake news affect us in a variety of ways. And I appreciate this expression of the Academy's engagement and concern. We certainly need to involve academics from the whole spectrum if we are to cope with the threat that fake news poses to democracy.

In a functioning democracy, we as citizens must make informed choices. Fake news twist information with lies and untruths. And I believe that if truth loses its meaning, if we make choices based on distorted or untrue information, it will influence our society in a very negative way.

We are living in what feels like an increasingly volatile world, with climate change, migration flows and rising populism. Gossip, lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories have always been around, but the rise of social media has made it possible to spread like never before. Some of the stories are quite easy to unmask, but others look real and accurate. Or accurate enough for those who want to believe.

An analysis by the digital media company Buzzfeed found that 19 serious news outlets together were beaten on total engagement by fake news on Facebook during the last three months of the American presidential campaign. Outlets such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN were beaten by stories such as: "Pope Francis shocks the world, endorses Donald Trump". Or: "WikiLeaks confirms: Hillary sold weapons to ISIS".

And this is not just a problem in America. We have seen an increase in news sites – or at least what tries to look like real news sites – that spread stories full of lies and distorted facts also here in Norway.

And according to the Economist a few months ago – you have seen nothing yet. The next stage of fake news will be more sophisticated. In a few years one can probably use an old video – for example of me talking about the value of education – as raw material to create highly sophisticated fake news. By using computers and artificial intelligence to manipulate both the images and the audio, the video can be manipulated so that I seem to be saying that the Holocaust never happened and that I think we should through away todays' history books because they perpetrate a lie.

So what can we do?

We need strong, independent and knowledgeable media. And we need to strengthen pupils and students ability to think critically and to analyse what they see, hear and read. And we need that academics such as you disseminate the results from your research and participate in the public debate to counter fake news and attacks on knowledge.

Let me start with the media. A fully functioning democracy needs free, independent and strong news organisations. In Norway, the media has taken the challenge of fake news seriously. They have established fact checking mechanisms – and they fact check politicians like me vigorously. It is not always fun to be forced to defend something that you may have said just a little to hastily, but I think that it is necessary. And I think that over time it will

make us appreciate even more the importance of real journalism. Hopefully, it will influence the tone of the debate in our democracy in a positive way.

But the public must also be in a position to understand and see the need for serious journalism and the hunt for truth. Part of today's challenge is that experts and academic knowledge is under attack. This is a challenge for our education system – for our schools, our higher education institutions and our researchers.

I mentioned that we need to involve a wide range of academic disciplines on the side of truth and against fake news. I would still like to mention especially the value of the humanities in this battle. Because in March the government presented a White Paper on the humanities to Parliament, to underscore the importance of the humanities in our time and age.

I believe that today it is more vital than ever to understand the importance of identity, values, religion, culture, ethics and language. Democracies require an enlightened public debate, which in turn requires a literate population with a basic understanding of history and international relations. School pupils must learn to navigate in the constant flow of increasingly complex and ambiguous information. The experience of art opens the mind to perspectives and insights not directly accessible by other means. The humanities are central to all these areas of human experience. We therefore need research and education in the humanities, in schools and in institutions of higher education, of the highest possible quality.

Humanities are in many ways also the bedrock of our schools. Children and teenagers need knowledge and source critical competence so that they can see the difference between fake and real news, between opinions and facts. That is why we want to give contemplation and critical thinking an even more important role in our schools' curriculum. And that is why Parliament supported the new White Paper unreservedly on the point that mutual bonds between the humanities in acacemia and schools should form the basis for enhancing quality on both sides.

We need both critical thinking and a strong understanding of fundamental skills like reading, writing, maths, history, social science and natural science to strengthen our pupils ability to handle fake news.

In higher education we need to build on the foundation laid down in primary and secondary education. We need to strengthen further and develop the students ability to critical thinking and to use their skills and knowledge, both inside and outside of their academic field.

It is of course not the job of schools and universities to decide or limit what pupils and students should think or mean. But like the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.

We have to make sure that our education system gives the understanding and knowledge we all need to make informed decisions so that we can see the difference between facts, opinions and lies.

Thank you very much for your attention and I wish you all the best for this year's Academy Symposium.