Many are try­ing to stop the spread of fake news, but they will have lim­ited suc­cess be­cause the gate­keep­ers of in­for­ma­tion want free­dom and au­ton­omy to de­cide what they read and broad­cast

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

FAKE news is in the news, again. This time it is mostly about gov­ern­ments plan­ning to in­tro­duce new laws and penal­ties to stop their spread.

The Ger­man au­thor­i­ties are tar­get­ing In­ter­net gi­ants like Face­book, and plan to re­quire them to take ac­tion against fake news posted on their sites, fail­ing which fines of up to €500,000 (RM2.36 mil­lion) can be im­posed. In Bri­tain, there is a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee look­ing into the is­sue. The Sin­ga­pore gov­ern­ment an­nounced last month it was study­ing the mat­ter and looks likely to in­tro­duce new laws. Why are gov­ern­ments step­ping in, and will they suc­ceed?

Their con­cerns have mounted fol­low­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in the United States, where the vol­ume and in­ten­sity of fake news reached new heights. Even more alarm­ing for them was the pos­si­bil­ity that for­eign gov­ern­ments might have been in­volved in at­tempts to in­flu­ence the out­come of the polls. While there has been no con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of this, the mere sug­ges­tion that fu­ture elec­tions any­where could be sim­i­larly tar­geted has made gov­ern­ments anx­ious to be seen do­ing some­thing.

So, what can gov­ern­ments do? An ob­vi­ous tar­get are so­cial me­dia sites like Face­book, Google and YouTube. These plat­forms are pow­er­ful ag­gre­ga­tors of news — gen­uine and fake — and spread them vi­rally through users post­ing and re­post­ing them. It has been re­ported, for ex­am­ple, that the fake news of Pope Fran­cis en­dors­ing then Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump was shared on Face­book a mil­lion times.

By fo­cus­ing their at­ten­tion on these com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments hope to use their re­sources and tech­ni­cal know-how. They know their own ca­pa­bil­i­ties are lim­ited, and, in any case, many of the ques­tion­able sites are based out­side their ju­ris­dic­tion. Faced with im­pend­ing new leg­is­la­tion, these tech gi­ants will want to be seen re­spond­ing though their ac­tions are un­likely to amount to much.

So far, the plans they have an­nounced are mainly about flag­ging du­bi­ous con­tent. But, it is a la­bo­ri­ous process try­ing to ver­ify the spu­ri­ous del­uge and they will end up with to­ken ef­forts on a hand­ful of the most bla­tant cases. You can be sure, though, even these will find their way else­where, some­where, some­how in the vast ex­pand­ing cy­berspace.

In fact, Face­book isn’t the most prodi­gious mul­ti­plier of news. The dis­tinc­tion be­longs to in­stant mes­sag­ing apps like What­sApp, WeChat, Line and oth­ers. They are harder to po­lice be­cause they do not op­er­ate any sites, only mul­ti­tudes of chat groups formed and re­formed in­stantly.

But, there is a more fun­da­men­tal rea­son why gov­ern­ment ac­tion is un­likely to suc­ceed. It is that fake news is not like an il­le­gal prod­uct bought and sold on the quiet, like fake watches or il­licit drugs and firearms. If it were, it can be dealt with sim­i­larly, with laws, en­force­ment and pub­lic vig­i­lance. Fake news is loud and wants to at­tract at­ten­tion to it­self and is hap­pily passed around not by mis­fits and peo­ple on the fringe, but the av­er­age ci­ti­zen of the on­line world.

To un­der­stand why this has hap­pened, you have to un­der­stand the rev­o­lu­tion that has taken place in in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which has com­pletely up­ended the tra­di­tional world. Much has been writ­ten about this new me­dia land­scape that has made news and in­for­ma­tion avail­able to ev­ery­one 24/7, turned main­stream me­dia busi­ness on its head, re­moved the tra­di­tional gate­keep­ers of in­for­ma­tion and made au­thor­i­ties ev­ery­where more ac­count­able for their words and ac­tion than ever be­fore.

But, the more pro­found ef­fect has been on how peo­ple con­sume and re­spond to news and in­for­ma­tion. They no longer do so pas­sively, but want to be ac­tive par­tic­i­pants, post­ing and re­post­ing them to their so­cial cir­cles, act­ing as gate­keep­ers. They be­come ac­tive fil­ters, de­cid­ing what to pass on and what to sup­press de­pend­ing on their in­ter­ests and bi­ases.

What drives this trans­for­ma­tion from pas­sive con­sumers to ac­tive broad­cast­ers? It comes from the greater au­ton­omy and in­de­pen­dence from au­thor­ity the dig­i­tal world con­fers to ev­ery­one. Peo­ple ev­ery­where have em­braced this free­dom and made use of it in many ways. Much of it is highly pos­i­tive, in com­merce, ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial ac­tivism and com­mu­nity build­ing. Of course, there is also more pornog­ra­phy, In­ter­net scams and hate con­tent than be­fore. But, the good over­whelm­ingly sur­pass the bad.

Think back, for ex­am­ple, on your own ex­pe­ri­ence on­line over the past 24 hours, and it is likely you wouldn’t want to go back to pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary time, even with all the un­savoury parts in­cluded. In this mi­lieu, en­ter so-called fake news.

But what is fake? It comes in all shapes and sizes, from the ridicu­lous to the sick and harm­ful. For ex­am­ple, there are count­less ver­sions of how us­ing your mo­bile phone can fry your brain cells. Or con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the 9/11 at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter be­ing the work of US in­tel­li­gence to cre­ate an ex­cuse to at­tack Is­lamic ter­ror­ists.

There is a lot of it go­ing round ev­ery day, with or with­out an im­por­tant elec­tion hap­pen­ing, and they ex­ist along­side all the other stuff that in­form, ed­u­cate and en­ter­tain. But, they have not slowed down the pop­u­lar­ity of the on­line world be­cause the con­sumer de­cides what to do with them — whether to delete, fil­ter or re­broad­cast it.

And in de­cid­ing, it re­in­forces his or her sense of au­ton­omy and in­de­pen­dence, and they will not give that up lightly. Gov­ern­ment ac­tion to cen­sor or fil­ter, on the other hand, sub­tract from this free­dom. Tech com­pa­nies know this, which is why they have con­fined their ac­tion to only check­ing and flag­ging the more ques­tion­able ma­te­rial. But, it also means their im­pact will be lim­ited.

It is im­por­tant for gov­ern­ments to un­der­stand this when they think about what ac­tion to take. The reality is that they will not just be tak­ing on the pro­duc­ers of fake news but the mil­lions of con­sumers who want to be their own gate­keep­ers. That’s the real rev­o­lu­tion that has taken place. It is not fake.

The writer is a Se­nior Fel­low at the S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (RSIS) of Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity in Sin­ga­pore. He is also Ed­i­tor-at-Large with ‘The Straits Times’

But, they have not slowed down the pop­u­lar­ity of the on­line world be­cause the con­sumer de­cides what to do with them — whether to delete, fil­ter or re­broad­cast it.


So­cial me­dia plat­forms are pow­er­ful ag­gre­ga­tors of news — gen­uine and fake — and spread them vi­rally through users post­ing and re­post­ing them.

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