Thanks to US President Donald Trump and the 2016 US presidential election, the term ‘fake news’ has been launched into the stratosphere. The term has become a weapon for those seeking to avoid public scrutiny. It is used to undermine the media’s credibility and to escape the media’s blowtorch. What can be done about it?
What is fake news?
One of the big drawbacks with the term ‘fake news’ is the absence of a universally agreed definition of the term. Some define it as news that is knowingly falsified for political purposes. Others use it to describe everything that they disagree with. Satire or innocently distributed information is excluded. The term has become overused and, some would say, it is quite meaningless. The managing editor of The New York Times went so far as to say that much of the concern about ‘fake news’ is fake.
‘One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with’
US President Donald Trump (photo credit: Michael Vadon, Wikipedia).
Trump may have taken credit for coining the term ‘fake news’. He is certainly the catalyst for its heightened use. The existence of the term, however, can be traced to a much earlier period in history. Merriam-Webster has found three examples of the term used in late 19th century newspapers, and by that count the term is at least 125 years old. And, we know that propaganda, lies and misinformation are not new.
Why does Trump constantly refer to certain US media outlets as ‘fake news’?
Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez from Curtin’s School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts says Trump exploits the term ‘fake news’ as a political device to delegitimise media outlets and journalists who disagree with him.
Trump’s claims about fake news started during the 2016 presidential election campaign and continued in 2017. His first attack on the media began on his first full day in office when he unleashed his fury at the news media for deliberately understating the size of his inauguration crowd.
Trump claimed the crowd “looked like a million, million-and-a-half” but one television network put the crowd at 250,000 people. Then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Trump had “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period”. This claim was, however, roundly challenged by the Pulitzer-prize winning Politifact, which considered various data and rated Spicer’s claims as ‘Pants On Fire’.
Fernandez says: “The media has an obligation to verify claims that people make and those who scrutinise such claims can be a nuisance to someone like Trump who would rather that people believe his version of things.”
“Trump uses the term ‘fake news’ to kill off uncomfortable debate. And to some extent it appears to be working! Just look at his Twitter account and the number of retweets and likes that he attracts.”
However, Fernandez points out that the attempts to attack the media as being ‘fake news’ has energised the media to review its own performance as a scrutineer of power and it has also forced the tech giants such as Google and Facebook to review their own roles in the distribution of information.
This Google Trends graph shows the relative increase of ‘fake news’ being searched in Google. The first spike occurs during the week beginning 13 November 2016 (a week after the US election results), while it was at its peak during the week beginning 8 January 2017 (where President-elect Trump told a CNN reporter he was ‘fake news’).
Top fake news stories of 2017 and 2016
- “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army”
- “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!”
- “BREAKING: Buckingham Palace announces the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 90. Circumstances are unknown. More to follow.”
What’s the problem?
Fernandez says leaving the ‘fake news’ phenomenon unchallenged can have serious repercussions.
“There is a danger that if people stop trusting the news, they will stop trusting institutions and each other and will stop participating in important public debates or participate in an ill-informed way.”
With a career in journalism practice and tertiary teaching spanning four decades, including a 14-year stint as chief editor of Malaysia’s The Daily Express, Fernandez has been hardwired to scrutinise power that individuals and institutions wield.
In a recent submission to the Australian Senate Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism, Fernandez focussed on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.
“In my submission, I argued that it is important to define ‘fake news’ so that it is not used oppressively against the ideals of freedom of expression,” he says.
“The war on ‘fake news’ should focus on those who are out to deliberately peddle false news with an ulterior purpose.
“When the media makes honest mistakes, we should trust the existing mechanisms for redress. Genuine errors can generally be fixed by demanding that the prevailing rules and the dictates of professionalism are observed.”
The spread of misinformation can obviously have a profound effect on power and politics. A 2012 article in Europe’s Journal of Psychology by a Central Washington University researcher found “simply exposing participants to false information will increase belief in the false information”. Meanwhile, an analysis by Buzzfeed News of the final three months of the US election found fake news stories performed better than authentic stories on Facebook.
Fernandez says: “If the ‘fake news’ phenomenon is left unchecked, it will lead to ill-informed voters making choices about who should govern and democracy itself stands to suffer.”
Crisis in Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi greeting supporters from Myanmar’s Bago State in 2011 (photo credit: Htoo Tay Zar, Wikimedia Commons).
Fernandez says one recent example of ‘fake news’ corrupting public discussion occurred in the context of the flight of Myanmar’s Rohingya people to Bangladesh to escape persecution from the Myanmar Army.
In late August, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister tweeted four photographs that allegedly showed Rohingya people in serious danger. The BBC later confirmed these particular photos were not related to the violence. The de facto Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi hit back: “That kind of fake information…was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”
Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for not living up to the Nobel Peace Prize ideals and for presiding over ethnic cleansing while the United Nations refugee agency has expressed concerns about the humanitarian condition of up to 15,000 stranded refugees.
“Someone of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature should be slow to use the ‘fake news’ tactic to dismiss her critics,” Fernandez says.
What’s the solution?
Google and Facebook have claimed that they are addressing the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. Facebook recently turned over about 3,000 Russia-linked advertisements to congressional committees investigating Moscow’s influence over the 2016 presidential election. Google and Facebook are also deploying algorithms that will improve the quality and accuracy of their search results, but these haven’t yet been implemented. While Facebook has claimed that it was making a stronger commitment to introducing better fact-checking, journalists working for Facebook say the social media site’s fact-checking tools have largely failed.
Fernandez suggests that in trying to address any problem that is claimed to arise from the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, the first step should be to decide what exactly the term means and what the problem is. The next step should be to see whether existing redress mechanisms provide a solution. For instance, if the nature of the claims in the publication concerned causes reputational damage, the laws and rules are well established and they should apply.
He says not every complaint can afford to be put through the court process. He adds that the media’s own watchdogs should be more active in promoting professionalism and in ensuring that their complaints mechanisms are effective and overseen by people with the right competencies.
“The regulatory initiatives, however, should not turn into an anti-speech monster,” says Fernandez.
He says governments could play a role by more strongly holding the tech giants to account while the courts could also ensure that the penalties meted out for egregious breaches better match the breaches.
Fernandez says educators have a role to play in equipping students with the right skills to distinguish between real and fake news and in training future producers of journalistic content to uphold high standards.
“Too many people are reliant on shaky social media platform sources to inform themselves, rather than rely on credible sources,” Fernandez explains.
“That needs to change.”
About the Australian Senate Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism
The committee was established to enquire about the future of public interest journalism in Australia and around the world. One of the committee’s terms of reference is to examine of ‘fake news’, propaganda, and public disinformation, including sources and motivation of fake news in Australia, overseas, and the international response.
The committee received 72 submissions from journalists, academics and organisations.