On accuracy in the media in the internet age

Hi, it’s been quite a while. Anyway…

I got rather riled up Monday night, and a fair bit of yesterday through my Twitter account, doing myself very few favours. What was the world changing cause of my efforts? Trying to correct every mention on Twitter that razors are zero rated for tax.

I guess I should take a step back. I’m not an accountant, I know little about tax. I’m also a man, and the reason anyone was mentioning tax rates yesterday on Twitter, was the #tampontax.

My thoughts on that matter, such as they are, is that people should have this stuff freely available if they’re poor, but otherwise it’s a fairly insignificant tax financially – it costs people basically nothing, it raises basically nothing for the state. This is largely inconsequential – I’m not an activist, not a woman and not an accountant, I don’t have much skin in the game.

I am though  a confirmed Guardian reader. Or I was a ” Guardian reader”, I’m not clear I’m still in lockstep with them. I do still read the Guardian though, online and through the app. As such I probably read many articles I wouldn’t in the print edition, and many of these which end up on the front page are women’s and/or feminist issues. Why are they on the front page? Clicks and comments. They get millions.

Like a moth to the flame I’m amongst those millions, drawn to the flame of the comments sections. Invariably these comments don;t engage with the argument in general, but the statistics.

The statistics, in the backlinks. The backlinks, referencing a Guardian article. A Guardian article, by the same author. The same author who will back reference themselves, until eventually we arrive at a dubious source. The source is (if I can remember history class reasonably well) secondary, always secondary. Not the study, but a report on the study on a friendly website. Not the BBC, or the paper of record. Sometimes a blog.

Was it always thus? Did I read papers for years lapping it up and accepting? Have backlinks informed me of facts, or made me doubt?

Well in the case of #tampontax, the first time I ever recall reading or hearing about it was some article about the petition that inspired the recent debate. That petition baldly asserted that “men’s razors” were not subject to tax. Google it, and it’s pretty obvious a lot of people think this statement is true.

I read an article in the Independent on Monday, which corrected itself for repeating this falsehood. I was pretty surprised actually. It was at that point that I put “men’s razors” into the search on Twitter. A huge percentage of people commenting on #tampontax were furious that whilst “tampons were a luxury, men’s razors were a necessity”. As we know, not true.

I set about correcting them. This was of course a dreadful idea. I explained this was commonly asserted in the Guardian, but not true. However, many were quoting not just The Guardian, but the BBC (the BBC has since corrected). MP Stella Creasy mentioned it in her speech, though “razors” not “men’s razors”, though she did refer to the men opposite her. I spoke to three branches of the Women’s Equality Party, to SNP candidates. It was everywhere.

How does a tiny lie become so widespread. Why does The Guardian not correct a mistake it publishes in every article on the subject, when the mistake is consistently flagged in the comments. How does the Independent remove it on a Monday to republish on a Tuesday?

I resolved not to look, to restrict my Twitter to people who may be interested, on subjects I actually cared about. All good. Until lunchtime. Then I did it again. Twitter search “men’s razors”. The website Dazed, formerly Dazed and Confused magazine had tweeted to 950,000 people “Men’s razors are not taxed. YES REALLY. Tampon tax is a joke” for an article outlining the ten reasons the tax is a joke. I contacted the author via private message, she thanked me, asked for the evidence, and did nothing. No update, no correction. They retweeted the message half an hour ago

The lie, a much better story than the truth.

I’ll finish with this. A general reaction to me messaging people was that it didn’t matter anyway, that if men’s razors are taxed, the tampon tax was still wrong. I agree, there isn’t anything to link them, the rate of tax on one has no bearing on the other. I think though that misses the point. The articles in question nearly always said “Men’s razors”, not “razors”. This wasn’t picking something ridiculous attracting zero rate VAT like Jaffa Cakes, it’s a deliberate attempt at divisiveness “why are women being taxed when men shave for free”.

All the sites who aren’t correcting it haven’t made a simple tax mistake, they taken a mistake because it fits the narrative, and they aren’t correcting it because controversy brings clicks.

Lastly – apologies to anyone I inadvertently, or advertently, wound up yesterday


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