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Need to nip the media ‘fakes’

In recent years, especially after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion of fake news with the sharing of false stories and manipulated figures, widely on social media without being fact-checked

Life today revolves around the Internet with a global system of social interactions including status updates, news feeds, comment chains, reviews, rankings and ratings. However, misinformation and hoaxes have gathered pace and negatively impacted people's lives.

Fake news is not new to the world. Its history arguably dates back to the ancient Roman Empire during a civil war between Octavian, the adopted son of the great general Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony, a trusted commander of the general.

To get public backing, Octavian launched a ‘fake news’ war against Antony claiming that he had an affair with Queen Cleopatra. Octavian also said Antony was unfit to hold office because he was always drunk. The campaign included “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets.”

Octavian eventually won the war and became the first Emperor of Rome.

Although false news and misinformation have always been spread throughout history, the term "fake news" was first used in the 1890s to describe sensational information that is not well-researched but instead strived to be eye-catching to sell more newspapers.

Nevertheless, the phrase does not have a fixed definition and has been applied broadly to any type of false information. In recent years, especially after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion of fake news with the sharing of false stories and manipulated figures, widely on social media without being fact-checked.

A report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism states, “Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, more than half of the global sample said they were concerned about what is true or false on the internet when it comes to news”.

Misinformation and fake news are now seeping into the mainstream media. In late 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In 2017, ‘fake news’ became Collins Dictionary’s word of the year and it’s remained in the headlines ever since.

In fact, a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center indicated that 68 per cent of adults get their news from social media. This number is up from 49 per cent in 2012. Social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, etc., have become one-stop shops for sharing content, interacting with others, and, you guessed it, getting the news.

A new WHO review defines misinformation as false or inaccurate information deliberately intended to deceive, while disinformation also included misleading or biased information, manipulated narratives or facts, and propaganda.

“Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are critical in disseminating the rapid and far-reaching spread of information,” the review explains. The repercussions of misinformation on social media include such negative effects as “an increase in erroneous interpretation of scientific knowledge, opinion polarisation, escalating fear and panic or decreased access to healthcare”.

However, the question still remains as to how much responsibility companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter should have when trying to target the spread of fake news. In 2016, Facebook launched its reporting and flagging tools after receiving an increasing amount of criticism regarding fake news being shared on its platform.

Google is also trying to play its part. The company revealed a new tool in March 2019 to help news outlets tag stories that present misinformation within them, part of its Google News Initiative.

It is high time for the media to tack more closely to professional standards and ethics, to eschew the publishing of unchecked information, and to take a distance from information which may interest some of the public but which is not in the public interest.

Of course, local, national and international efforts are required to counter the production of fake news and misinformation!

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