Fake news and hard truths

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Fake news is manufactured with an intent to mislead, damage someone, attract attention to a cause, or to gain either financially or politically. JACK GUEZ/AFP

We live in an information age, or more likely, an age of disinformation. Growing up in a world that worships technology and knowledge, we have now entered a phase in which we are no longer able to trust whether the information we receive is fake news or not.

Worse, we don’t know whether the provider of the information is trustworthy or not.

Fake news has many definitions. Basically, it is manufactured with an intent to mislead, to damage someone or to attract attention to a cause, or to gain higher media attention, or financially or politically.

Such information could be outright sensational, partial, incomplete, provocative, false or fabricated, with some journalists even paying for leaks or gossip.

Today’s fake news also includes tampered photographs and videos, or encourages people to “act” in front of the cameras.

Up until the 1970s, when print media and television dominated the distribution of information, media could be trusted to give balanced views, setting out different sides of the argument to enable the reader or viewer to judge what was correct.

Newspapers and television channels were rich enough to finance investigative journalism in uncovering the “truth”.

But with the arrival of digital information, these traditional channels have lost advertising revenue to social media, so the quality of journalism has deteriorated. In order to attract attention, newspaper and television content has become more and more sensational, as well as more biased to one side.

The battle over readership has also affected social media, where the value (advertising revenue) of the media outlets depends on their ability to attract viewers and readers.

How important is fake news? When you type “fake news” into Google, you get 1.48 billion results, versus 380 million for “Jesus Christ”.

Trump gets two billion, which goes to show how successful he is in social media.

Is fake news damaging and should it be regulated?

Canadian think-tank the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) conducted an online survey in 25 countries on internet security and trust, and found that Facebook was the most commonly cited source of fake news, with 77 per cent of Facebook users saying they had personally seen fake news there, followed by 62 per cent of Twitter users and 74 per cent of social media users in general.

Disturbing

The vast majority think that fake news is made worse by the internet, with a negative impact on their economy and worsened polarisation of views.

Significantly, one-third (35 per cent) pointed to the US as the country most responsible for the disruptive effects of fake news in their country, trailed significantly by Russia (12 per cent) and China (nine per cent).

There are clearly lots of bad online trolls and social media platforms which act to spread fake news, but it is very difficult to agree on who should regulate fake news and decide what is fake or not.

Some people believe in self-policing by social media platforms, but others want governments to be involved but are also wary of censorship.

My own view is the apparently spontaneous protests in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Santiago, France, Indonesia and the Middle East are clearly associated with the rapid spread of social media, including the tools to protest, organise and riot.

What is particularly disturbing is the huge divide of opinions, including violent action to stop the other party from presenting their points of view.

The opposing view is often labelled fake news, with even the courts being questioned if they rule against the prevalent views.

Is free speech turbocharged by a social media promoting hate and divisions that increasingly verge on violence and social breakdown?

‘Truth-seeking function’

Australian philosopher Tim Dean has recently questioned whether free speech has failed us.

As he rightly points out: “Free speech is not an absolute good; it is not an end unto itself. Free speech is an instrumental good, one that promotes a higher good – seeking the truth.”

The real problem is that if we do not have facts, we cannot have rational debate on what is truth.

The rule of law works on the principle that if there is dispute in society, it is resolved civilly either through the courts or through the political process.

But once violence is involved, the rule of law breaks down.

As Professor Dean says: “Free speech only fulfils its truth-seeking function when all agents are speaking in good faith – when they all agree that the truth is the goal of the conversation, that the facts matter, that there are certain standards of evidence and argumentation that are admissible, that speakers have a duty to be open to criticism.”

If, however, one side blocks out the opposing view through intimidation, insults, threats, violent action and the wilful spread of misinformation, then civil discourse disappears, as does the rule of law.

This is clearly the age not of information but of anger.

As a result of financial capitalism, huge inequalities have been allowed to fester, breaking down rational discourse, engendering distrust of the establishment and old order, and pushing hate and divisions.

Should we allow social media to turbocharge this process, one not of healing but of polarisation?

The Singaporean government has taken the bold step of regulating fake news through the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which came into effect this month.

Under the act, the Singapore government can take action on false information on the internet, either ordering that it be taken down or corrected, or order technology companies to block accounts that are spreading untruths.

A wise friend told me that we are actually living in a fractured generational divide.

The old want to maintain the old order of stability.

The young think that this is rigged against them and want to change the system they will inherit.

But something is seriously wrong when schoolchildren think that it is right to throw petrol bombs and that it is cool to beat up policemen and anyone that they think stands in their way.

For even reputable channels such as the BBC to start glorifying such action, one wonders whether fake news has truly won.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are solely his own.