Coming to grips with fake news and the post-truth era

The World Press Freedom Day was observed this week with acute awareness of how fake news and the so called “alternative facts” have snowballed from merely being a nuisance to play a role besmirching the very notion of press freedom.

The World Press Freedom Day was observed this week with acute awareness of how fake news and the so called “alternative facts” have snowballed from merely being a nuisance to play a role besmirching the very notion of press freedom.

Information manipulation and made-up content contaminates press freedom, as UNESCO, the UN body charged with shepherding the Day, has termed it.

 

One illustrative example close home suffices. Those who have been following the noisy politics in Kenya will not have failed to notice the news item how voters in Busia County woke up to a fake front page of the country’s leading newspaper plastered all over announcing the defection of one of the main gubernatorial candidates in the ODM primaries to the ruling party. That was last month.

 

That sort of thing is usual fair with the gutter press. But it was a first for print media with usurp of the reputable, globally recognised newspaper of the country’s record (The Daily Nation) to smear a candidate with made-up content complete with impeccably forged graphic design of its front page.

 

And yet it was already an old tactic. “’Fake’(d) news”, as the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, lamented in an op-ed, defined the media landscape in 2016, presenting the latest challenge to the media sector.

The other challenges include declining audiences for traditional media, sliding profits and claims of a growing disconnect between the media and their public.

But while propaganda and all manner of misinformation and disinformation are not new, 2016 gave it shape and a concrete place in time heralding the “post-truth” era in the aftermath of the perceived unintelligibility of the Trump election in the US and his assault on the media as peddlers of fake news.

But the media has been unrelenting, and continues to call his flip-flopping and “blatant lies”, which has helped entrench the term post-truth in the English lexicon. Post-truth has since been named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionary.

And yet it all flows from the fact that any imposter can easily manufacture fake news with the rise incentivized social media that has fostered spreading of false information through click-bait.

The more clicks a sensational headline can entice readers driving traffic to a website the better the advertising reward. It becomes a vicious cycle attracting characters pulled by easy financial gain or distortion of truth for emotional persuasion.

It is well known how one reads a story that fits his or her worldview and s/he shares it on social media and their followers pick up on the same false information and share it further.

Or the cases of emotional persuasion where it provokes the echo chamber effect, where information, ideas, or beliefs, are amplified or reinforced by repetition in a closed group such as those that populate platforms such as WhatsApp. The inclination is that it tends to close out any objective information that may challenge the group-held narrative.

However, some of the biggest culprits enabling this, Google and Facebook, acknowledge the challenge and are currently trying to address it.

But “we don’t want to be the world’s editor,” as Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice-president of policy for the European, Middle East and Africa region, explained at a one-day colloquium discussing the issue at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters in March.

And, of course, no one expects them to be the world’s editor, but to take their responsibility and come up with an effective way to curb the entrenchment and divisiveness of fake news even as they must continue to churn a profit for their investors.

It is also about every responsible citizen. Without audiences demanding well- researched and conflict-sensitive narratives, as UNESCO suggests, critical reporting will be increasingly side-lined.

The UN General Assembly declared May 3 World Press Freedom Day with the aim of raising awareness on the importance of press freedom and remind governments of their duty to respect the right to freedom of expression.

This year’s theme “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies.” Journalism is recognised as central to achieving the agenda 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and aims for justice for all, peace, and inclusive institutions.

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