An era of fake news? – Newspaper
THE danger that misleading or false information poses to society has been grimly demonstrated during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the deadly threat posed by the virus, the response of many people around the world has often been shaped by misinformation fed through digital platforms. This has led them to either trivialize the disease or resort to “cures” with no scientific basis and simply because they were spread on social news as “cures”. The hesitant vaccination in many parts of the world has also been largely driven by rumors and conspiracy theories.
This prompted the World Health Organization, at the beginning of the pandemic, to coin the term “infodemic” to refer to the flood of information and the exponential distribution of fabricated content. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom said: “We are not only fighting the virus, but also the trolls and conspiracy theorists who are spreading misinformation and undermining the response to the outbreak.” Senior UN officials have repeatedly warned of the serious social and health consequences spreading misinformation and stressing the need to immunize the public against false reports.
While the global health crisis has spawned a barrage of false stories, the reality is that fake news is all around us today. This poses new challenges for social stability in the so-called post-truth era, a term that emerged a few years ago. It refers to a phenomenon not in itself new, commonly referred to as a phenomenon of discarding facts and questioning criteria for establishing the truth. Instead, there is a prevalence of views that only match people’s personal preferences or emotions.
Read: Living in the age of ‘fake news’
Why is fake news so widespread today? Is it really that new? What explains its prevalence today? How harmful are the effects of a post-facts environment?
Regulating technology is one thing, but it’s uncivilized human behavior that needs to change.
Of course, fake news is not new. There have always been inventions and falsehoods. So try to manipulate the truth. Falsification of facts has precursors in propaganda, which has long been used to manipulate opinions for political purposes. Propaganda with misleading narratives was usually used by states or political leaders and was aimed at enemies abroad or at home. Disinformation has been used against opponents by countries throughout history. What sets fake news apart from propaganda is that individuals and non-state actors are passionate about using it in the digital age. This makes it unprecedentedly pervasive.
Their more pronounced nature means that hoax in their current form is a more recent phenomenon. It is well known that following the Brexit vote and President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, there arose a debate and concern about the political and ethical implications of these events, where it is widely believed that misinformation played a role in influencing voters . What was then called post-factual politics was described as a deliberately spread falsehood that misled the debate and misled people.
What explains the omnipresence of fake news today? There is general agreement that this has a lot to do with the spread of information channels and the expansion of social media in the digital age. Communication technology dominates our lives today like never before. Online platforms are widely recognized as the main vehicle for spreading misinformation. Fake news circulates easily due to the magnifying power of social media and goes viral in this largely unregulated environment. Anonymity on social media platforms gives the sellers of false stories and trolls the consolation that they will not be held responsible for the lies or hate messages they spread. Anyone can post fake news on social media without fear of retaliation.
For this reason, Facebook and Twitter are the subject of worldwide criticism. Despite the fierce controversy over their role, social media giants wielding immense power have yet to conduct effective self-regulation. A Unesco report states that the steps taken are “sketchy” at best. As Timothy Garton Ash once wrote in The Guardian, these digital platforms have become “unprecedentedly powerful amplifiers of lies” and “the profit motive drives them to the dark side through algorithmic maximization of the currency of attention”. In fact, their business model prevents them from having real controls over divisive content and “digital forest fires”.
The spread of fake news has also been linked to the rise of populist leaders who have no qualms about knowingly selling fact-free narratives. Trump has perfected the politics of lies. He deliberately used “alternative facts” and manipulated opinion by advocating conspiracy theories and fabricating threats to advance his political career. But he wasn’t alone. Demagogues and their supporters around the world have used similar means of political achievement and played with the vulnerability of people by spreading falsehoods.
A plausible connection was also established between the spread of fake news and political polarization. This is because in a polarized society and politics, people believe what their partisan side conveys or what is in line with their own views. They only listen to the news media or follow online sites that reflect their own bias. Living in information or digital “bubbles” makes you vulnerable to everything that is spread by your chosen information channel, whether true or false.
The harmful effects of the fake news phenomenon are manifold. An environment where the truth is blurred can have far-reaching consequences – misleading people, damaging social cohesion by undermining a common interest, degrading politics, undermining civic obligations, and even creating public unrest.
Also, as President Barack Obama once made known, “fake news is a threat to democracy”. When the political debate is humiliated and ripped off by falsehoods, democracy is in jeopardy. By playing out and reinforcing polarization, falsehood-based narratives that demonize “the other” destroy the sense of community and are deeply divisive. Trust is also waning in public institutions, as misleading information often breeds doubts and cynicism. The harmful effects of hate speech, harassment, online extremism and lies spread against minorities need no further explanation.
How these dangers can be mitigated is an imposing challenge of our time. Solutions on offer range from tighter online regulation, increased surveillance and oversight by social media companies, to removing toxic content and ending user anonymity. How effective they can be remains to be seen. Regulating technology is one thing, but it’s uncivil human behavior that really needs to change.
The author is a former ambassador to the USA, Great Britain and the United Nations.
Posted in Dawn, April 5, 2021