AS a Hamilton-born boy of some vintage, I’m old enough to remember a certain historic SNP by-election win that took place 52 years ago this month.

Yes, it is that long since Winnie Ewing took the seat before arriving at Westminster and memorably announcing “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.

Election campaigns were by and large of a different character then, bringing to mind activists ferrying elderly voters to polling stations in their cars and a level of door chapping that while certainly still happening today is vastly surpassed by online canvassing and campaigning.

Given that the looming General Election will fundamentally be fought and won online, rarely will there ever be a political moment in the UK when the shrill cry of “fake news” will be more readily heard.

That this is not a uniquely UK phenomenon, of course, it goes without saying. Across the globe there is mounting evidence of the increasing use of fake news and social media to manipulate elections, and in some cases monitor citizens.

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to recent data revealing that the vast majority of false information shared on WhatsApp in Brazil during last year’s presidential election favoured the far-right winner Jair Bolsonaro, the number of countries caught up in such dark arts and shaping election outcomes is growing.

Such is the concern in many about the spread of false information online and its impact on everything from share prices to social unrest, that new laws to curb so-called “fake news” are appearing rapidly.

Last year, France passed two anti-fake news laws, to rein in false information during election campaigns following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2017 presidential vote. In Russia itself, President Vladimir Putin earlier this year signed into law tough new fines for Russians who spread what the authorities regard as fake news or who show “blatant disrespect” for the state online.

In Germany, too, a law was passed last year for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to quickly remove hate speech.

Further afield in places including Malaysia and Singapore, laws against fake news have been implemented giving government ministers in the latter’s case powers to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts authorities deem to be false, and in extreme cases get them taken down.

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Closer to home in the UK just last month a University of Oxford report recommended that political parties that spread fake news online should be punished with bigger fines and restrictions on their use of data. It also suggested that the Electoral Commission should keep a database of political campaigners’ social media accounts to keep track of the material they are posting.

Understandably such moves are not without criticism, with human rights groups fearing that in many cases such legal powers have the capacity to choke freedom of speech and stifle dissent. There’s no doubt that in some countries such measures will be abused to silence opposition but, that said, equally unregulated social media and the growth of fake news cannot continue to go unchecked.

The National: Vladimir Putin has vowed to get tough on fake news, but will such moves simply stifle dissent?Vladimir Putin has vowed to get tough on fake news, but will such moves simply stifle dissent?

For if there is one simple inescapable fact, it’s that without action, fabricated stories posing as serious journalism with their power to influence public opinion are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Fake news, after all, is nothing new and has a long history. But questions over who controls what we see and hear go far beyond anything experienced before. Never has there been a time when the vulnerabilities of individuals, institutions, and society to manipulations by malicious forces been more universal and pronounced as they are right now. So what then should be done?

On this one, I’m with French journalist Christophe Deloire, who is also secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the group that conducts political advocacy on issues relating to freedom of the press and information.

In his capacity as secretary-general of RSF, Deloire makes the case that for consumers of digital news there is an urgent need for some rules, “before the information landscape becomes polluted and manipulated beyond repair”.

This, he says, is beyond the capacity of any one government alone. It’s genuinely good news, then, that in September, albeit to little fanfare, 30 countries at the UN signed what is now known as “The International Partnership on Information and Democracy”.

This commits these countries to promote online access to news and information that is freely and independently reported, diverse and reliable.

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Most importantly it marks a start in guaranteeing citizens the right to freedom of opinion, based on reliable and pluralistically sourced information, without algorithmic, political, or religious bias. It’s hoped it will also put the onus on online service providers to promote trustworthy content.

All of this will not be easy to fully establish or maintain of course. At least, though, it is a welcome and positive step forward in tacking fake news, for without some kind of joined up global initiative soon, our media institutions and the remaining trust citizens put in it will be damaged perhaps irreparably.

This though is not a one-sided commitment. For if those of us who consume news and media coverage want the information it provides to be free, reliable and independent then we too have a responsibility in stepping up to the plate on behalf of those genuinely committed to producing it.

Complaining about fake news and media bias is fine where it’s justified. But it’s simply not good enough to constantly gripe about such things while doing nothing to uphold, protect, support and encourage those trying to do the right thing by journalism.

As we enter the throes of what will undoubtedly be one of the bitterest fought general elections ever, our patience with the media and the pernicious effect of fake news will be tested like never before.

I like many I’m sure will hanker a bit for those days when the truth seemed more transparent even if elections back then were just as fiercely contested.

Stopping fake news does require a global watchdog and the time for that has come. But such a body also urgently needs the backing of those among us who understand the necessity of a free and properly functioning press to the health of our democracy.