The Rise of Fake News

By Quek Xin Wei | May 28, 2021, 10.00AM

Photo by Marcus Winkler on unsplash

As global attention remains steadfast on the COVID-19 pandemic, a second pandemic of fake news is rapidly developing amidst the international race by governments to inoculate their respective populations. Spreading rapidly across the borderless internet, the wave of false and misleading information relating to COVID-19 has presented a significant enough public health safety threat to prompt the UN to issue a cross-regional statement declaring a COVID-19 infodemic requiring immediate government action in June last year. This infodemic however, is not limited to the topical issue of COVID-19 but spans across divisive subjects ranging from politics to culture — all of which have the potential to produce real offline consequences.

Ubiquitous access to the internet has precipitated the emergence of digital media as the preferred choice of news information ahead of traditional media. Once the gatekeepers of mainstream media due to their monopoly over the production and distribution of news on a mass scale, the proliferation of digital media platforms has challenged the role of news media organizations as the principal information provider for society. Any individual, whether a qualified professional or in their personal capacity, is able to publish and circulate content online at no cost and without editorial oversight.

This digital empowerment blurs the line between news producers and readers at the expense of journalistic quality. Following the traditional media model of hierarchical news distribution and paid subscriptions, objective reporting of the facts and publication of reliable information from verified sources financially translated to a credible reputation built on public trust. However, in a digital media landscape that de-regulates the distribution of content and promotes hyperactive audience engagement in terms of likes, comments and shares across multiple platforms, the quality of information depreciates vis-a-vis the quantity of news stories which generates greater audience engagement.

Within the cauldron of reports, editorials and opinion pieces, the spread of fake news points clearly to an appetite for stories of sensation, scandal and controversy. A study conducted by MIT researchers analyzing why lies spread faster than the truth, arrived at the conclusion that false news spreads further, quicker, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information because humans, not bots, driven by behavioral psychology, are more likely to spread it. This finding indicates that readers have grown into consumers with a selective news diet, one with a craving for fake news. Factoring in digital advertisement which monetizes views and clicks, digital advertisers chasing ad impressions financially incentivizes fraudulent sites to feed into this demand. And so it goes, the rise of fake news.

 To stem the tide, countries like Thailand under the Ministry of Digital, Economy and Society has formally established an Anti-Fake News Centre in a bid to crackdown on social media platforms awash with spurious news stories pedaling unverified claims. In Singapore, the communication of false statements of fact is prohibited under the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Dubbed the fake news law, POFMA allows Ministers to issue a take-down order for the complete removal of a falsehood from its online location as well as a correction direction requiring the implicated party to post a notification highlighting that it was a false claim. Non-compliance can result in a fine of up to S$20,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 12 months.

While these government measures underscore the growing awareness surrounding the need to address the percolation of disinformation and misinformation online, the question which begs: is inoculating against fake news possible? In the case of Singapore and Thailand, the laws and regulatory efforts are reactive — action is initiated after the publication of fake news. Media literacy education – developing the ability to critically assess and independently verify information – in this respect presents itself as a more proactive approach to counter the spread of fake news. Yet, what remains unaddressed is targeting the publication of misleading and false news at its inception. Social media platforms like Twitter have recently introduced a label and warning system which attaches labels with a link to an ‘external trusted source containing additional information’ on tweets containing disputed or misleading information. Facebook since 2016 has implemented a third-party fact-checking program by partnering with International Fact-Checking Network certified fact-checkers to rate and review the accuracy of content and removing it if it violates community standards and ad policies.

With many sounding the alarm that fake news is a growing threat to democracy, the deluge of fake news despite these measures in place indicate more must be done to scale up efforts to tackle the volume of content circulating and improve the speed of response to it. As it stands, concerns that social media companies are shaping up to be arbiters of truth and free speech have renewed the debate over whether the government should intervene and if regulation would challenge democracy instead of strengthening it. Regardless, it is clear that fake news is a complex international problem plaguing societies and a public-private partnership is absolutely necessary to develop complementary and multifaceted solutions.

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