The Very Real Challenges of Fake News

Fake news in its viral form can be a threat to democratic institutions. However, in searching for solutions to the crisis, we must recognise it as a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes!” Over the past three centuries, variations of this quote have been attributed to several persons including Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Whoever said it first, these words neatly sum up a longstanding challenge to modern societies: How to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods. Today, we call it ‘fake news’, but the phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for centuries. It used to be called disinformation, propaganda or rumours. Many of us have grown up amid intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments.

Propaganda reached unprecedented heights during the Lankan civil war, but governments used to fabricate news well before that. A notable example was in 1974, when the socialist government claimed how Russian experts had discovered traces of petroleum in Pesalai, a fishing village on the island of Mannar. Sceptical newspaper editors who questioned it were ‘disciplined’ through the draconian Press Council, but they had the last laugh when the fraud was later owned up.

Our governments were not alone in making fake news: For over half a century, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries manufactured a vast amount of disinformation (i.e. willfully wrong information) that was fed to their citizens and spread overseas in sustained propaganda efforts.

So, what’s new? Over the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online. From dubious websites to social media accounts (many hiding behind pseudonyms), the web has provided a globalised playing field where dubious content could go ‘viral’.

We are only just beginning to understand the far-reaching impacts of this latest, turbo-charged fake news. It has evolved into a contagion that can affect election outcomes, damage international relations, and even lead to violence and death in some volatile countries. Did fake news stories cost Hillary Clinton the US presidency in November 2016? It is true that, during the campaign period, deliberate falsehoods about her were circulated in formats that looked as if they came from a serious news source.

Over the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online

On Christmas Eve 2016, a fake news story even led to threats of a nuclear war between Pakistan and Israel. On December 20, a website “quoted” former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon as threatening to destroy Pakistan if it sent troops into Syria. Three days later, Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Asif responded on his official Twitter saying “Israel forgets Pakistan is a nuclear state too”. Only when the Israeli Ministry of Defence denied the original statement did the Pakistan government realise they had reacted to a mischievous piece of fake news! Peter Singer, a professor of bio-ethics at Princeton University, believes fake news in its viral form can be a threat to democratic institutions.

“Whether or not fake news cost Clinton the presidency, it plainly could cause a candidate to lose an election and upset international relations. It is also contrary to one of the fundamental premises on which democracy rests: That voters can make informed choices between contending candidates,” he says.

Regulating fake news is exceedingly difficult. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in 1791, says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” While it has historically provided strong protection for artistes and journalists, today’s fake news producers cynically abuse this legislative cover. President Donald Trump has complicated matters by throwing the ‘fake news’ label at any media outlet that carries unfavourable coverage or critical commentary. Vilifying the messenger that bears unpalatable news won’t help overcome the crisis of genuinely fake news.

In fact, fake news is only a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis: Declining public trust in journalism and media. Fake news fills the vacuum of credibility that has been building up over the years. Mainstream media (MSM) is meant to follow universal values and practices of journalism: accuracy, balance and fairness, and accommodate multiple points of view. Professional journalists are trained to sift through information, and process it by verifying and contextualising. But, many MSM outlets have deviated from this path for political or commercial gains, and their audiences realise it.

Some scholars call this a ‘journalism deficit’, a gulf between what journalism ought to be and what it has become. As trust in MSM declines, citizens increasingly turn to a wider collection of news sources – not all of which may practice basic tenets of journalism, and some may be disseminators of outright falsehoods.

One long-term response to fake news is to nurture quality journalism. Another is to enhance citizens’ ability to critically consume media (i.e. media literacy). Both are in short supply. In this equation, media freedom is necessary – but not sufficient – to ensure that media content is trusted by the public. This contrast is clearly evident in the United States, which has some of the strongest legal protections for reporting and expression anywhere in the world. Yet, every passing year, Americans trust their media less and less. In 2016, the trust level dropped to 32%, down from 40% in 2015 (meaning, 68% don’t trust the media). This is an all-time low since the pollster Gallup began asking the question in 1972.

In searching for solutions to the fake news crisis, we must recognise it as a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or a quick fix.

Indeed, any ‘medicine’ prescribed for the malady of fake news should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations. As human rights defenders caution, there is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate international human rights laws.

This was stressed by a Joint Declaration issued on 3 March 2017 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye (a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine) along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). They pointed out that the human right to impart information and ideas is not limited to “correct” statements, and that the right also protects information and ideas “that may shock, offend and disturb”.

The Declaration noted, “General prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression…and should be abolished.”

It emphasized that “states may only impose restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in accordance with the test for such restrictions under international law, namely that they be provided for by law, serve one of the legitimate interests recognised under international law, and be necessary and proportionate to protect that interest”.

One long-term response to fake news is to nurture quality journalism. Another is to enhance citizens’ ability to critically consume media

As suitable responses to the fake news crisis, the Declaration identified measures that have long been promoted by those involved in strengthening the media as a democratic tool. It includes streamlining laws and regulations related to FOE and media, strengthening independent public service broadcasters, promoting media literacy, and increasing media diversity.

While governments grapple with regulatory challenges, major tech companies like Facebook and Google are also responding. In recent months, both have announced new initiatives to stem the flow of fake news.

Richard Gingras, Google’s vice president of News, gave the keynote speech at the World Press Freedom Day global observance in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 3. He acknowledged that there were no easy solutions to the spread of falsehoods online. He called it an ‘arms race’ between the good guys and the bad ones.

Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally available and useful”. While Google continues to pursue its mission, Gingras stressed, the company does not wish to be the world’s sole arbiter of truth.

Nevertheless, he announced that Google is refining its search algorithms and harnessing user feedback to highlight information coming from trusted sources. At the same time, he added, “Identifying bad content is not easy, and neither is spotting good content from quality sources.”

We can’t leave it all to Auntie Google. A healthy dose of scepticism can filter out a good deal of disinformation surrounding us. We also need to build media literacy as a survival skill and develop independent fact-checking services. And stop sharing dubious claims we find on social media!