Fake news and ‘mea culpa’

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Between The Lines -

To­day, more than ever, we need jour­nal­ists. I should be proud to be one — but press work­ers are not re­ally proud these days to shoul­der the bur­den of fact-check­ing ev­ery piece of con­tro­versy that looks like a re­port. Much of this in­for­ma­tion is part of the sensational news that pops up sev­eral times a day on social media, and jour­nal­ists roll their eyes as we would like to ig­nore them, but even­tu­ally some­one’s got to check them out. You would rather do some­thing else when you are short-staffed.

One re­cent re­port was on the pur­ported wave of 10 mil­lion Chi­nese work­ers that the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Joko “Jokowi” Wi­dodo sup­pos­edly reck­lessly al­lowed into the coun­try.

What we had to clar­ify to deeply con­cerned and highly ag­i­tated peo­ple was that this fig­ure was the amount of Chi­nese tourists that Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping promised Jokowi in one of their meet­ings.

The di­rec­tor gen­eral of im­mi­gra­tion, Ronny F. Som­pie, re­cently said the num­ber of Chi­nese work­ers in In­done­sia to­taled only 27,254 as of De­cem­ber. He said that 1,837 of them were il­le­gal and had been de­ported.

But does that fact-check­ing make any dif­fer­ence? Maybe not to those who ask, “If we have so much un­em­ploy­ment, why give jobs to the Chi­nese?”

Just ask the mas­ter and pi­o­neer of the “post-truth” era, Don­ald Trump, soon to be the 45th US pres­i­dent. To ad­dress in­se­cu­ri­ties, you don’t need facts, you need to be a charis­matic ring mas­ter. Just like the fire­brand Habib Rizieq, who mes­mer­izes crowds with his mega­phone — and was re­cently re­ported to po­lice for hurt­ing the feel­ings of Chris­tians. For his crowds, what­ever he said prob­a­bly re­mains a fact.

Reg­u­lar news out­lets try to re­port facts: Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of Hil­lary Clin­ton and Trump, agen­cies ran fact-checks on both cam­paigns, show­ing lots of holes in both.

Trump won any­way; af­ter all, Clin­ton had her cred­i­bil­ity is­sues, and Trump re­lated much better to the in­se­cu­ri­ties of both rich and poor whites, re­ports said, de­spite his hor­ri­ble boast­ing about grop­ing women. “He talks like us,” some men said. What all the media out­lets didn’t get, pun­dits said, was that Trump sup­port­ers or Hil­lary haters (they might not be the same) do not care about de­bat­ing facts. “There’s no way for me to know what is ob­jec­tively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own ev­i­dence,” said Michael Lynch, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut, in de­scrib­ing peo­ple’s way of think­ing, es­pe­cially in times of po­lar­iza­tion like dur­ing elec­tions,

The New York Times re­ported re­cently. No won­der then that it sounds sim­i­lar here, ahead of the elec­tion for Jakarta’s gov­er­nor where haters have tri­umphed in mak­ing in­cum­bent Ba­suki “Ahok” Tja­haja Pur­nama the de­fen­dant in a blas­phemy case.

Even be­fore media work­ers got to ver­ify and clar­ify re­ports like the 10 mil­lion Chi­nese work­ers, there were more videos and “news” of this and that con­spir­acy against Mus­lims in­volv­ing ei­ther the com­mu­nist, Shi­ites, maybe work­ing with the Chi­nese too.

Among the lat­est was the “re­ported” threat of a Jewish in­va­sion in the guise of the cheery cry “Om Telo­let Om!” (“honk your horn, un­cle!”) — be­cause, the “re­port” says, telo­let in the Swahili lan­guage means Yah­weh or God in He­brew. Huh??

Many news­room man­agers would not care to al­lo­cate pre­cious re­sources to fac­tcheck all that crazy cre­ative non­sense — be­cause even if I man­age to dig out Swahili to find telo­let means Yah­weh, who cares? And that’s where we have been wrong. Mea culpa.

Lots of peo­ple ap­par­ently re­ally worry about this and that in­va­sion and con­spir­acy — surely Hol­ly­wood shares the blame.

Just look at the US and other west­ern na­tions. The in­va­sion of il­le­gal mi­grants steal­ing their jobs feels real to them, while their gov­ern­ments con­tinue to help refugees with tax­pay­ers’ money.

Then when a de­ranged or mis­led lone wolf or two sud­denly strikes and kills, all Trump needs to say is that he was “100 per­cent cor­rect”, ba­si­cally im­ply­ing to be re­ally care­ful about any Mus­lims. In do­ing so, he shows he was to­tally cor­rect about one of the most im­por­tant in­se­cu­ri­ties — the well­be­ing of peo­ple and their fam­i­lies.

Not all the globe’s pop­u­la­tion from east to west is fran­tic about ev­ery­thing pos­ing as news in their chat groups. But it’s a sig­nif­i­cant mil­lions of peo­ple with gad­gets in hand and ac­cess to un­lim­ited in­for­ma­tion that lack the built-in an­ten­nas to fil­ter ev­ery­thing com­ing their way.

Some news is fake, and some are real quotes from peo­ple like Trump.

Malaysia’s daily The Star re­cently cited sur­vey­ors who were stunned that most re­spon­dents in a study could not dif­fer­en­ti­ate fake from real news, in­clud­ing one about a girl who drowned. She was in fact alive and shocked as the fam­ily was de­luded with queries.

In­deed peo­ple no longer rely on main­stream media for their news.

Items look­ing like news are more at­trac­tive; they are di­rect and do not seek to be fair, bal­anced and politically cor­rect — how bor­ing!

We are far from the US, where, fol­low­ing a fake re­port on Clin­ton’s child-abuse ring, a man fired a shot into a pizze­ria — but that’s no con­so­la­tion.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Ariel Heryanto has de­scribed how the New Or­der regime shaped an en­tire gen­er­a­tion (or two) into being so gullible to state pro­pa­ganda that many of us ac­tu­ally re­pro­duced it.

But when democ­racy in the post-re­form era ef­fec­tively turns a blind eye to in­flu­en­tial media steered by their own­ers with po­lit­i­cal lean­ings, no won­der trust de­clines, with the va­cancy filled by social media.

Peo­ple have be­come a bit more care­ful since the amend­ment of the law on elec­tronic in­for­ma­tion, which could make jails even more full with all the pranksters.

For­tu­nately my mom has her smart­phone to keep up-to-date with friends and fam­ily, though they of­ten send her such wor­ry­ing things — but she also watches the good old-fash­ioned TVRI state-run tele­vi­sion net­work.


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