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Brussels, February 23rd, 2018 (Jim McDonnell). “Fake news” is in the news. This is in no small part because almost every day it seems that the President of the United States issues at least one tweet which accuses journalists of reporting “fake news” critical of him or his supporters. So prevalent has the term become and so concerning to governments, businesses, civil society and journalists themselves, that around the world the number of conferences, seminars and talks on the subject proliferate.
What is fake news?
The phenomenon of “fake news” is not new. As a type of propaganda and disinformation it goes back to ancient times. The ancient Athenians, for example, successfully employed disinformation in their defeat of the Persian King Xerxes at the battle of Salamis. In modern times disinformation was a tool commonly employed by all sides in the Cold War. Scandal sheets and the popular press have made up stories since their beginnings. The term “fake news” itself was first coined at the end of the 19th century in the USA. However, it only became widespread since it began to be used in connection with the US presidential election of 2016.
What has given the current outbreak of anxiety about fake news its peculiar intensity is the connection with the Internet and social media. What we see now are small groups of people, for political, terrorist, commercial or criminal reasons, being able to set up fake news websites, and to manipulate social media interactions and algorithms by creating stories and themes (“memes”) that go viral very quickly. Facebook revealed in 2017 that Russian-linked divisive messages reached 126 million Americans during the US election.
There are four common types of fake news: first, deliberately fabricated, intentionally deceptive stories designed to manipulate readers into believing or doing things. Terrorist groups plant fake stories to recruit adherents and spread hate; criminals promote fake stories to fool people to take their money; state-sponsored entities work to sow social discord; conspiracy theorists to prove almost anything. Second, biased, partisan or poor reporting of real facts to fit an agenda, such as anti-vaccination, climate-change denial or any number of political controversies. Third, stories of scandal, gossip and rumours containing partial elements of truth are designed to drive up sales or publicity. Fourth, satire or jokes which can be taken at face value.
The effects of fake news
The consequences of fake news can be far from trivial. Victims of tragedies and bereavement have suffered twice because posts and tweets branded them liars; children have died from measles because of stories alleging vaccines were dangerous; false allegations of blasphemy or witchcraft spread by social media have resulted in people being killed. More widely the prevalence of fake news has been seen to undermine even basic levels of trust in the political process, journalism and social cohesion. Worryingly, it seems that even when news is exposed as fake, very many people will refuse to believe that they have been wrong, and their belief in the false news is only strengthened the more it is attacked.
However, there are some positive indications that the power of the fake news epidemic is not all-encompassing. A global survey in October 2017 found that attacks on mainstream news media for carrying fake news largely failed to damage the reputation of traditional news media like the BBC or the New York Times. Instead it found that social media, like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were trusted less by nearly 60% of people. Moreover, in the USA, UK, France and Brazil there remained a strong belief (73% agreement) that quality journalism is key to a healthy democracy. And when another global survey showed that 80% of people feared being deceived by fake news, it is less surprising to find that more people are ready to pay for quality news online.
Combating fake news
A number of measures are being taken to combat fake news. Germany has already passed an Act to require social media providers to remove offensive content, and many governments are looking at rules to ensure that social media companies adopt self-regulation that recognizes that they have responsibilities as “publishers,” not just conduits of news. Under pressure, social media companies themselves are responding by using more human editors as well as algorithms to identify and block fake news sites.
Public broadcasters and trusted news sources like major newspapers have invested more heavily in fact-checking. The BBC, for example, now has a Reality Check correspondent. It also has decided to devote more time to producing “slow news”, that is news that gives more context and background to stories.
Many people point to the need for critical media and information literacy to help users, young and old, deal with fake news. It equips people with the skills to identify and challenge bias, prejudice, misrepresentation and lies. This media literacy, however, has also to encompass two other dimensions.
First, what is called commercial media literacy which helps people understand the economics of how digital media and journalism are funded and, crucially, the role of targeted advertising and the use of personal data.
Second, an ethical media literacy that helps people (and organizations) understand their responsibilities as users, what is acceptable and pro-social behaviour online and how to combat fake news and hate speech in the way they use digital media. It seems, for example, that most people are so inundated with information that they forward or retweet posts without ever actually evaluating the content. Thus false information can be spread easily and quickly.
Pope Francis, who has been the subject of fake news himself, has chosen to discuss the topic in his 2018 World Communications Day message* but the emphasis is not so much on “fake” as on the alternative, a commitment to truth. Its aim is to promote a journalism that is “always seeking the truth, and thus a journalism of peace that promotes “understanding among people”. In the end, the scourge of fake news can only be countered by a continuing commitment by media producers and users alike to the values of truth, openness and honesty.
* “The Truth Shall Set You Free”. (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace.