Why William is tracking fake news

William Dance, PhD student and associate lecturer at Lancaster University
William Dance, PhD student and associate lecturer at Lancaster University

A Lancashire researcher is hot on the trail of fake news, all in the name of work.

Notorious false reports, such as recent “news” that the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was being called off or, in a local instance, that fracking is set to begin in Chorley, are all the kind of stories which are of particular interest to William Dance.

The PhD student and associate lecturer at Lancaster University monitors such false reports diligently, but he is interested not so much in the story content as how fake news spreads and what gives it currency.

The desire to research this topical subject grew as he was choosing his PhD subject.

The 22-year-old said: “I knew what I wanted to do was to do with deception and manipulation.”

The timing coincided with the American presidential election and William has since watched as the issue of fake news has become a source of major international concern, raising fears about the future of democracy and how easily people can be influenced by false stories, videos and photographs.

With accusations and counter-accusations about who planted what story where, it can be a murky world of disinformation spread at speed on numerous social media platforms.

William said: “It’s quite a new phenomenon and nothing had been done from a linguistic perspective. There was very little in terms of academic research.”

He first came to Lancaster to take a Masters in language and linguistics and is now in his first year of his PhD studies and is also an associate lecturer at the university.

He notes it seems many people promote fake news to justify their beliefs and will over the next few years continue monitoring the motivations of those who spread bogus stories round the net and how they discuss and share such news online.

As for his own and friends' use of social media he now advises his friends to be far more critical about what they read on line and question its source and veracity.

He added: “Until now I’ve just been a user - now I’m coming at it from the reverse side. I’m studying social media language and how people behave on social media - particularly how they behave linguistically.”

William will be using software developed at the university to analyse trends in the dispersal of false news .