The year fake news made the head­lines

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Har­vey Mor­ris The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­to­rial con­sul­tant for China Daily. Con­tact the writer at ed­i­tor@mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com.

Bo­gus sto­ries prop­a­gated on­line not only spark con­fu­sion among read­ers, but also breed a dis­trust of the me­dia

We of­fer no prizes for guess­ing that the 2017 Word of the Year, an an­nual selec­tion made by the dic­tionary pub­lisher Collins, turned out to be “fake news”. The phrase will now fig­ure in fu­ture edi­tions of the Harper Collins dic­tionary, de­fined as “false, of­ten sen­sa­tional, in­for­ma­tion dis­sem­i­nated un­der the guise of news re­port­ing”.

No one has done more to pop­u­lar­ize the phrase than United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who reg­u­larly uses it in his terse Twit­ter re­bukes to me­dia crit­ics and po­lit­i­cal ene­mies.

Oth­ers have latched on to the “fake news” la­bel, pro­duc­ing an es­ti­mated four­fold rise in its use by head­line writ­ers in 2017.

It is not al­ways used, how­ever, in the way the dic­tionary com­pil­ers in­tended. Of­ten it is em­ployed to de­scribe any gen­uine item of news that re­veals in­con­ve­nient truths about po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, celebri­ties and oth­ers in the me­dia fir­ing line.

Fol­low­ing Trump’s lead, “fake news” is now rou­tinely used to de­scribe any bit of news the speaker dis­agrees with, re­gard­less of its ve­rac­ity. he phrase and the false re­port­ing it de­scribes have not been con­fined to the An­glo­sphere, or just the Western me­dia. In In­done­sia, Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo was the tar­get of an in­sid­i­ous on­line cam­paign sug­gest­ing that he was pre­par­ing to sell out the coun­try’s in­ter­ests to China. The coun­try’s cy­ber­crime po­lice moved to shut down the so-called Sara­cen group, one of a num­ber of on­line pub­lish­ers us­ing such fake news to stir up eth­nic di­vi­sions.

Fake news is not, of course, a phe­nom­e­non that was in­vented in 2017. Pro­pa­gan­dists of all stripes have long been used to prop­a­gat­ing false­hoods to in­flu­ence their some­times gullible au­di­ences. The tra­di­tional role of the me­dia has been to try to sort fact from fic­tion and get as near as they can to the truth.

But a new chal­lenge comes from a splin­ter­ing of the on­line me­dia land­scape in which fake news pur­vey­ors can pose as the gen­uine ar­ti­cle. As more and more peo­ple track events on­line via so­cial me­dia sites, they tend to fol­low out­lets that con­firm their prej­u­dices.

For ex­am­ple, although the over­whelm­ing weight of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence con­firms the ex­is­tence of man-made cli­mate change, skep­tics will al­ways latch on to any scrap of news that claims to con­tra­dict the main­stream.

From there, it re­quires just a short leap of faith for con­spir­acy the­o­rists to start as­sert­ing that cli­mate change science is it­self a hoax de­vised by sin­is­ter ped­dlers of “fake news”.

2017 was not just the year of fake news but also the one in which some author­i­ties, as in In­done­sia, took mea­sures to com­bat it. So­cial me­dia giants such as Twit­ter and Face­book have come un­der pres­sure to tackle the prob­lem of fake news be­ing prop­a­gated on their sites.

Among the plethora of false re­ports that spread via so­cial me­dia dur­ing the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was the claim that Pope Fran­cis had en­dorsed the can­di­dacy of Don­ald Trump.

The ser­vice providers have in the past re­sisted be­ing viewed as news sites, although much of their in­come comes from users click­ing through to news items, both real and fake.

The ex­is­tence of fake news items that go vi­ral on sites such as Face­book can un­der­mine peo­ple’s faith in gen­uine news ser­vices, now rou­tinely de­nounced by Trump and oth­ers as the fake main­stream me­dia.

Faced with a bar­rage of crit­i­cism, so­cial me­dia sites have now been forced to pledge that they will do more to fact-check items and take down fake post­ings. But there are still com­plaints that it takes too long to tackle false re­ports and that in­ac­cu­rate, racist and in­flam­ma­tory ma­te­rial still man­ages to get through the safety nets.

One re­sponse to the fake news phe­nom­e­non is the emer­gence of fact-check­ing sites that will act swiftly to de­bunk the more out­ra­geous on­line claims.

Ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity rests, of course, with the con­sumer. If a news item sounds fake, then it fre­quently is. A quick on­line search of trusted news sites will usu­ally serve to dis­prove the most bla­tant ex­am­ples of fake news.

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