Fake news and ‘mea culpa’
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.
JAKARTA ATI NURBAITI