Curb fake news, not media

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Press Freedom
Geetartha Pathak

Aswathama hatha (and then murmured): iti narova kunjarova. Yes, Aswathama is dead (and then murmured), I do not know if it is a man or an elephant. This epic dialogue of Yudhisthir relates to the intriguing story of how the great guru of warfare, Drona, was made to feel upset by spreading fake news of the death of his beloved son Aswathama.

This eventually made it easy for Dhrishtadyumna to kill him. Roman General and politician Mark Antony too killed himself due to misinformation. After his defeat in the Battle of Actium, on hearing false rumours propagated by Cleopatra herself claiming that she had committed suicide, Antony killed himself.

After Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933, they established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under the control of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

The Nazis used both print and broadcast journalism to promote their agendas. Throughout World War II, both the Nazis and the Allies used fake news to persuade the public. In fact, there are plenty of stories of fake news shaping the course of history.

Global Phenomenon

The term ‘fake news’ gained currency after US President Donald Trump used it extensively to refer to the critical news and views on him in mainstream media, especially during the 2016 US presidential election. The digital communication boom and the proliferation of viral content on the web aided in spreading the problem.

A Pew Research poll conducted in December 2016 found that 64% of US adults believed that completely made-up news had caused ‘a great deal of confusion’ about basic facts, while 24% claimed it had caused ‘some confusion’ and 11% said it had caused ‘not much or no confusion’. Twenty-three percent of those polled admitted they had personally shared fake news.

‘Like’ or Retweet

In the 2016 American election, Russia paid over 1,000 internet trolls to circulate fake news and information about Hillary Clinton, which also had the power to create social media accounts that resembled voters in important swing States to spread influential political standpoints. According to BuzzFeed, during the last three months of the presidential campaign, of the top 20 fake election-related articles on Facebook, 17 were anti-Clinton or pro-Trump.

Facebook users interacted with them more often than with stories from genuine news outlets. A CNN investigation examined exactly how fake news can start to trend. There are ‘bots’ used by fake news publishers that make their articles appear more popular than they are. “Bots are fake social media accounts that are programmed to automatically ‘like’ or retweet a particular message.”

Problem of Trust

According to Professor Jeff Hemsley of Syracuse University, Trump uses this term for any news that is not favourable to him or which he simply dislikes. Michael Radutzky, a producer of CBS 60 Minutes, considers fake news to be “stories that are provably false, have enormous traction or popular appeal in the culture, and are consumed by millions of people”. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan warned fellow journalists that “it’s time to retire the tainted term ‘fake news’. Though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost.” Whether ‘fake news’ is an acceptable term, and if it’s acceptable, what is its definition and how it can be stopped, is an ongoing debate in the media.

The key issue is that the legitimacy of all content sources, not just media, is being questioned. People do not know whom or what to trust, and that’s the problem.

Disturbing Trend

Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee claimed that fake news was one of the three most significant new disturbing internet trends that must first be resolved if the internet is to be capable of truly ‘serving humanity’. The other two are the recent surge in the use of the internet by governments for citizen-surveillance and cyber-warfare. A filter bubble is a state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalised searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past click-behaviour and search history. Resultantly, users get separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.

In 1996, Nicholas Negroponte predicted a world where information technologies would become increasingly customisable. This becomes a problem in today’s society because people are seeing only bits and pieces and not the whole issue, making it much harder to get to the reality.

Increasing Censorship

The Chinese government used the growing problem of fake news as a rationale for increasing internet censorship in China in November 2016. It published an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, The Global Times, titled: ‘Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook’, and criticised ‘unpredictable’ political problems posed by freedoms enjoyed by users of Twitter, Google and Facebook. Chinese leaders justified adding more curbs citing the US election. The Egyptian government praised the Trump administration in February 2017, when the country’s foreign ministry criticised Western journalists for their coverage of global terrorism. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised Trump in 2017 for berating a CNN reporter. Erdogan, who criticised the network for its coverage of pro-democracy protests in Turkey in 2013, said that Trump had put the journalist “in his place.”

No Solution

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry of India attempted to impose restrictions on free media by changing rules. When the media fraternity reacted sharply, the PMO intervened and the order was rolled back. Leaders of the world’s democracies must resist assaulting independent media organisations in the name of curbing fake news. A free and vibrant media is vital to the functioning of a healthy society and misinformation will undermine it. However, official remedies that end up silencing those reporting the news are a cure worse than the disease itself.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)