Recently there have been growing concerns about fake news. What is fake news? Fake news is a type of journalism or propaganda that consist of deliberate false information or hoaxes spread via any forms of media, digital or print. They may hold elements of truth but are distorted in reality, usually published with the intent to discredit an agency, entity, or person. In some cases, authors of these fake news write sensational headlines and stories just to boost readership and gain advertising earnings.
The consequences of the spread of false news can be dire. Non-state actors could spread falsehoods to disrupt social harmony, eroding the social fabric of a nation by turning groups against each other. There are also reports of state actors using fake news to make allegations to influence the politics of other countries or generating fake news during elections to influence voters. It has been reported that Russia allegedly created false campaigns via social media to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential elections by targeting the Democratic Party. The reach of online falsehoods is widespread and borderless, and it is increasingly being seen as a new form of informational warfare.
Using fake news to defame and undermine public trust
This month, an alternative news site in Singapore called States Time Review made a post that links PM Lee with the 1MDB investigations. The post suggested that Singapore banks had a hand in laundering the funds of Malaysian state fund 1MDB. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued a notice to the site to take down the article on the grounds that the article undermined public confidence in the integrity of the government and was considered prohibited content. However, the post remained on Facebook, and Facebook did not accede to the request to take it down. The reason given was that it does not “have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”.
How are governments dealing with this growing problem?
Singapore is looking to create legislation and governance over online falsehoods. Earlier this year, a Parliamentary Select Committee of 10 members was formed to examine the impact of online falsehoods and held public hearings with 65 organisations. They subsequently submitted 22 recommendations for the government to look into legislative and non-legislative measures of dealing with the issue.
Strengthening the public’s media literacy is also needed to combat the impact of fake news. People need to identify when a news source is deemed untrustworthy and fact check against other reliable sources before believing it to be true. It used to be easier to trust the media as traditional media would have done their thorough checks on what is true or not before running the stories in print. Now with digital media, websites can be created easily to look professional, while actually made with the intent to spread false information.
The European Commission documented its guiding principles in taking action to tackle online disinformation, including improving transparency of origin of information, promoting diversity of information, providing indication of trustworthiness in information providers, and creating long-term solutions to improve public awareness and media literacy. The guidelines were meant to complement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applied across the European Union in May this year to strengthen personal data privacy on online platforms.
Who gets to determine the truth?
Underlying the concerns over fake news is the fundamental question of who gets to determine truth within society. The arbiter of truth holds power over what is perceived to be true and what can constitute falsehood. Facts are objective, but once a narrative accompanies facts in the reporting, the storyteller’s perspective may color objectivity. Journalism can be influenced by a couple of factors like political stance, personal beliefs, and worldview of the editors, or even the leaders and funders of a publication house. It is difficult to appoint an objective agency to determine what is the truth. Those in political power could make claims that certain allegations are falsehoods just to protect their interests and preserve the public’s support for them.
Increasingly, consumers of information – you and I – would have to be more critical about the messages we receive, read and share with others.
Questions for further personal evaluation:
- What makes it difficult to determine the truth?
- What do state actors gain from influencing the politics of another country?
- ‘indictment’: a formal charge or accusation of a serious crime
- ‘imminent’: about to happen
- ‘ostensibly’: as appears or is stated to be true, though not necessarily so; apparently.
Here are more related articles for further reading:
- Foreign Policy: Reasons why U.S. and Europe are unprepared for the disinformation that can come from the use of technology and policy recommendations
“Deep fakes and the democratization of disinformation will prove challenging for governments and civil society to counter effectively. Because the algorithms that generate the fakes continuously learn how to more effectively replicate the appearance of reality, deep fakes cannot easily be detected by other algorithms — indeed, in the case of generative adversarial networks, the algorithm works by getting really good at fooling itself. To address the democratization of disinformation, governments, civil society, and the technology sector therefore cannot rely on algorithms alone, but will instead need to invest in new models of social verification, too.”
- Washington Post: Insight into how lies can be spread easily in America from the perspectives of the creator of false news and the consumers of the news
““Nothing on this page is real,” read one of the 14 disclaimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the America of 2018 his stories had become real, reinforcing people’s biases, spreading onto Macedonian and Russian fake news sites, amassing an audience of as many 6 million visitors each month who thought his posts were factual. What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker. “No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,” Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?””