By Theodore Warnakulasuriya –
“He speaks in accents familiar to his victims, wears their face and their arguments, rots the soul of a nation, and infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.’’- Cicero 2000 years ago, about the dissemination of fake news.”
We live in an age known as digital age bombarded day and night by fake news often with misinformation. At general election 2020 approaches, by looking also at the previous Presidential elections, there is a probability just as corona virus, spreading of more fake news by interested parties. How can we tackle the problem positively? This article is mostly based on the recent discussion promoted by European Political Strategy Center, posing number of questions to a prominent expert panel asking their frank opinions in dealing with “Fake News“ from a public policy perspective. The questions that raised were, (1), What are the general views on global trends linked to the emergence of ‘fake news’ and related issues? (2) Based on their professional experience and research, what has caused the spread of ‘fake news’ online and what evidence do they have of its impact on democracies, societies and economies? (3) which initiatives do they believe are necessary to tackle ‘fake news’ online and its related issues? (4) Given the seriousness and impact of “Fake News” what is the main message to the general public regarding what should (or should not) be done about ‘fake news’ and disinformation online?
In order to understand the plague of “fake news” that has shaken we Sri Lankans badly specially during the last presidential period we need to first understand why so many people are interested and giving importance to the media because as some believe correctly or wrongly, today they are the kingmakers of the day. As we know very well people are interested in studying or specilization in mass media for a number of reasons. Academics study it to better comprehend the process and to come up with theories that explain how and predict the way media operates at different levels. Students and others might study media to get an employable degree, or to become media literate so that they know and understand the various manifest and latent elements imbedded in the mass communication process. However, what is important to remember is that those in the media industry (Newspapers, Radio, Television and Web media) study it in order to increase their operating efficiency to improve their ratings and maximize their profits when they sell news and information products to the susceptible general public.
Media has functions as well as dysfunctions to perform in society. Though most of these functions are not mutually exclusive, they perform various important tasks for the people. Starting with the surveillance function, of the environment, which is also further divided into two main types. For example, beware surveillance such as ( coronavirus warning). Instrumental surveillance (where to go and what to do in case of the corona ).Secondly, the interpretation function which is closely connected with the surveillance function. Under the interpretation, we can include editorial cartoons, critics rating latest motion pictures, plays, books, restaurants, car models, bank rates and so on. Mass media do not simply supply facts and data only, but try to provide information on the meaning and significance of various events often sweet coated with their organizational ideologies. On the dysfunctional side, media surveillance and interpretation of selected events can give way to status conferral which can also create unnecessary and unwanted anxieties such as (reported panic buying of food items and sanitary items because of corona warning). Then there is linkage function, namely joining different elements of society that are not directly connected. A good example of the linkage function is the needs of those suffering various sicknesses are linked to the “Good Samaritans” namely people of goodwill who likes to help. The fourth function of the media is the transmission of values. This is also known as media socialization. Literally it means the ways an individual adopts the behaviour and values of a group.( Hairstyles, fashion wear can be examples). Another important function of mass media is the entertainment function, which is reading and enjoying mimes, watching and listening to programs such as Good Ugly and Bad, various reality shows such as superstar programs, and listening and watching you tube and listening to music, song, and watching plays. Of course, there are negative sides or disfunctions involved in all these aforementioned functions. On the role of providing news as we know that news values are normally formed by tradition, organizational policy, and economics and of late by the digital revolution. As we know, there are five main elements that characterize newsworthy events: Timeliness, Proximity, Prominence, Consequence, and human interest. Do the media still adhere to these norms?
However, as we are bombarded daily as looking doses of false you tube news, a proliferation of hate web sides, fake news videos, some news organizations promoting their own candidates armed with framing, agenda-setting, and cascading, no doubt all of us are bewildered. We are forced to ask the question whether, our main media institutions press, radio, television, internet and you tube, are playing according to the rules and ethics or they are misleading the susceptible public with misinformation to achieve their hidden agendas endangering democracy. We ask this because of recent presidential election memories, namely famous incident and media’s portrayal of” Relics found from Kelani River”. Media portrayal of Dr Shafi episode for alleged sterilization of Sinhalese Majority by performing caesarean deliveries.”, Media portrayal of national security issue in the back ground of Easter Sunday bombing, now famous Ranjan tapes targeting specially selected female politicians. Definitely they are some of the examples of fake news setting the media agenda for some of us. According to some experts, fast infiltration of fake news helped also the bringing down of incumbent government in the last presidential election. So is fake news shaking the foundation of democracy? How can we understand the spread of fake news? What precautions can we take to discern true news and fake news?
According to the prominent experts invited by the European Union on this current topic, “Fake news” is ‘disinformation’. Most of the time, the term ‘fake news’, is poorly defined, politicized and misleading. It is poorly defined, unless used in narrow sense – as false and fabricated content masquerading as news, which is a smaller subset of the wider problem that people are concerned with. It is politicized in the sense that it is a term that is used by politicians to attack and undermine the credibility of independent news media trying to hold them to account. And it is misleading because much of what we discuss under the headline of ‘fake news’ is neither fake – it can be genuine content put to malicious use, taken out of context, strategically deployed – and nor news for that matter. It can involve trolling, amplification, promotion, sharing and the like and it is news in any meaningful sense.
However, one of the known danger of fake news is that, the – low trust and the move towards a more distributed media environment where platforms lead people to content, sometimes content people do not know where it comes from – lead to an often rambunctious political and public sphere. However, it is important to remember that rambunctiousness is not a threat to democracy. No one ever promised that politics would be polite, or that public debate would be genteel. With the advent of social media, most news peddlers peddle more information using social media specially Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and so on. However, we need to get a sense of the scale and scope of the problem of and not to exaggerate because it could further erode or undermine citizen’s confidence in our political and genuine media institutions. Much of the content one reads is prepared by political actors coming from different backgrounds and some of it is promoted by news media (clickbait, hyper-partisan opinion) and some of it by civil society actors. It is important to underline that much of this might be uncomfortable and undesirable, but it is not necessarily a threat to democracy. Though it is true that it is not easily identified in an objective way because it is not simply a matter of true or false, or it can also be a wild exaggeration or highly opinionated opinions which needs to be weighted rationally.
For the past several years Oxford University too, examining the proliferation of poor quality junk news and information on across social networks. They hold that people in the USA share more junk news that people in other advanced European countries. Their analysis has further shown that usually, junk news get more spread in electorally swing states in US and in electorates where people are not so literate. Their findings further show, that some social media campaigns usually target US military personnel, veterans and their families supplying misinformation on national security issues. The issue should be not how much junk news or fake news flows within a time period, but whether they influence policymakers. According to the same research prominent female intellectuals, female politicians, Human Right advocates tend to be frequently targeted by certain social media campaigners. These hate media campaigns tend to arise usually at times of social media crisis, during civil wars, or places were there are security crises. Usually partisan and bias social media news peddlers not only share and distort substantial amounts of professional news but also share extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news. Such findings of the Oxford research can be validated when looking at the Facebook, Twitter accounts and web pages and comments put forward by their followers during the last presidential elections. Recently it was reported that just a few days ago a professor of a medical faculty advocating in his Face Book account throwing human excreta at a another well known professor who was invited to be the chief guest by the faculty of social science in that university. Our memories go to certain web sites in Sri Lanka, informing the public to boycott certain shops and food outlets run by certain ethnic groups here because they are pasting and mixing Sterlite tablets and chemicals in food items even in underclothes.
According to the EU panel, “Fake news” have two ingredients for its success. First, fake news makes use of ample of misleading information. Secondly, they make use of proprietary algorithms owned by social media firms today. With combination of this two, social media firms can influence or misinform electorate driving people towards political mistakes in decision making to undermine the electoral process and democracy. It is told that Face Book and Twitter can serve large junks of misinformation directly to most of the voters who are online just before the last hours before they vote. Peddlers of disinformation are using often the very same digital media analogies that entirely legitimate political actors, news media publishers, civil society organizations, governments and private companies are using. The same tools are made use to empower various forms of hate groups as well as “Me too movements” and “Never Again Movements” found in many countries. We need to admit too sincerely that most of us do not know yet about the full implications of the digital shift unfolding around us. What we need to remember is that disinformation campaigns can be run by anybody, by political parties, commercial companies. Moreover, the advent of social media, as well as anonymity on the internet, enables large-scale disinformation campaigns which deliberately launder false information maliciously. Often, although not necessarily only, the campaigns seek to promulgate extremist ideas and then amplify them further using social media, trolls, bots and tricks designed to manipulate search engines.’
In order to counter act spread of “Fake news” professionally produced journalism, should be strengthened was the unanimous decision of the EU Panel of experts. We need to renew these institutions to ensure that professional journalism can continue to play a vital role in our democracies moving forward.’ Rather than just trying to stop ‘fake news’, we need to focus on mechanisms that identify, protect, and elevate what is most probably true and undistorted. States should recognise and reward sources for being trustworthy and transparent. One approach would be to tie all posts back to their online identities This approach won’t directly take a person out of their personal echo chamber of ideas, but it could give them a sense of the trustworthiness of the sources.’ Further, we need a regular system of algorithmic audits. Such as we audit video gambling machines, audit financial trading algorithms, all in ways that don’t violate the intellectual property of those technology firms. A system of regular algorithmic audits would allow us all to restore trust in the social media systems that many of our citizens now value.’ We need to focus on the problem of anonymity. As we know, most disinformation campaigns operate making use of anonymity, due to the fact that it’s so easy to create fake websites, fake online personas, even armies of fake bots actually that aren’t even people, but they are computer codes only. We need to work towards for an important step forward by investing in the ideas of online passports and online e-identities, as well as verified email and flags for anonymously created websites. Governments who are interested in combating fake news can put pressure on the tech companies to create these products, and even sponsor them outright.
*Theodore Warnakulasuriya – Professor of Media Studies