This article first appeared in Malta Today
The recurring theme, not only in our own recent elections, but the other elections which have taken place around the world, has been the emergence of a new phenomenon dubbed as ‘fake news’, which includes the deliberate spread of misinformation in general. Sometimes this is done by fake news websites, sometimes by planted trolls who infest social media and comment boards during election campaigns, and sometimes even by ‘reputable’ sources which either knowingly or unknowingly pick up a story and run with it, without verifying the facts first.
The result has been a complete erosion of trust in all media outlets, by a public which has understandably become increasingly skeptical and cynical.
It was therefore extremely timely to be invited to attend a Tech Forum on the theme Digital Citizenship: Building Trust, in Brussels over the last two days. Journalists, fact-checkers, researchers and academics from EU member states were invited by the US Department of State (in collaboration with Molen Geek) to attend this seminar with workshops by digital media experts from all over the world, some of whom specifically specialise in discovering and stopping fake news.
Although we like to think of ourselves as unique with our own unique set of problems, it is when one gets away from this island and meets others who work in the same field that one can appreciate that we are not so different after all. A loss of faith in institutions, political, business and commercial interests, clickbait, manipulation, propaganda and fake news are issues which are prevalent everywhere.
In fact, it was significant to learn that trust in the media has dropped drastically throughout Europe, where it ranges from 65% in Poland to as little as 20% in Greece. My fellow journalists will not be happy to learn that if media outlets are no longer trusted, then individual journalists are even less so – the percentages plunged to as little as 11% in some cases. it seems it is easier to blame an identified person rather than a vague news organization. When asked to name whom they trust most, many said they would trust a friend who has shared an article more than journalist, further confirming that our social bubble is influencing the way we look at the media and how we decide which outlets are deemed ‘reliable’.
Gone are the days when if you heard on the news or read it in the paper then “it must be true” – instead, it is “if my friend shared it or liked it, then must be true”.
Radio is the most trusted medium, especially among the older generation, whereas most young people stated that their source of news is Facebook, unaware that this is merely a platform and not a news outlet.
Getting away from Malta, is also a good way to put things into a more realistic perspective. The demarcation line between the Fourth Estate and those whom they are there to scrutinize was very clear. In fact, there was a healthy, critical ‘disdain’ towards governments and politicians in general, which is how journalists should be, keeping a firm arm’s length distance away from any political party, rather than getting too cosy, and practically campaigning for their ‘favourite’ as we saw in our own elections.
The topic of journalists declaring how they will vote also came up during one of the workshops, and that was probably the only time I saw eyebrows raised, as the others confirmed how I feel about this, that no, that is simply not done, especially by newsroom journalists. Ironically, it was pointed out that rather than reassuring the reader, it would make the reader even more suspicious that the journalist had an inherent bias in the stories being reported and, more crucially, how they were being reported. This is, of course, not the same as a newspaper taking an editorial stance, which is quite common.
Divisive political and social issues, voters entrenched in their own social media bubbles and echo chambers, the laziness of readers who share and click ‘like’ without reading an article first – we were all nodding in agreement in recognition of what is happening in our own countries. On the other side of the fence is the media itself: one which has also become more lazy, by sourcing its stories from Facebook or Tweets without any context or depth; journalists who never leave their desk and don’t know what it means to be ‘on the ground’, meeting and interviewing sources to establish background and gather real facts rather than relying on hazy information which cannot be pinned down or verified. Fact-checking is a slow, time-consuming, rigorous process and has to be done, but is often the first casualty of digital media where being ‘first’ online with a scoop has become the ultimate aim.
So yes, sometimes the misinformation which goes viral and spreads like wildfire, especially during political campaigns, is not a deliberate plant by a shadowy someone with a cunning plan. It can and often is, easily explained by an indifferent, inexperienced journalist who did not bother to go to the source himself but relied on second or third hand information. If we want trust to be regained in the media, newsrooms really need to go back to the basics and train their staff on the foundations: accuracy, integrity, tonality, impartiality, accountability, proactivity and humanity. These are the core ethics many of us were trained in – where have they gone? There is also the matter of differentiating between comment (such as this one) and reporting, which needs to be shorn of what the journalist personally ‘feels’ and simply states the facts.
One of the most salient things which was pointed out is that even when it comes to debunking misinformation and fake news we need to differentiate between poor journalism, or deliberate propaganda. By naming the problem we give it more meaning. And this is where fake news comes in.
The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan once said, “when people believe nothing… they will believe anything”.
This statement perfectly encapsulates where we are at in this moment in time. Who to believe? Should we believe anyone? And if that piece of news turned out to be fake, who is to say that everything we are being fed is not also fake?
Trainers at this seminar included experts who run websites whose sole mission is to debunk fake news, and they showed us how this is done through fact-checking, tracing back the original source and spotting the inflammatory, sensationalist language.
What also emerged is the latest trend in election campaigns, which I believe was also used in Malta: a concerted effort to swamp social media by using a group of people to spread certain skewed stories and misinformation on various platforms until the misinformation goes viral. Stories which were not ‘quite’ accurate often spread like wildfire and shared countless times, until they became ‘fact’, although they were not based on anything more than assumptions, speculation and unfounded claims.
In the face of all this, what is an ordinary reader and consumer of news expected to do? We can hardly expect the average person to sift and compare the endless news stories which are churned out 24/7 to try and establish the truth. The most we can do is teach and educate more people about media literacy, to make them aware that there is a whole industry dedicated to fake news, and about only sharing stories from proven reliable sources.