The im­pact of fake news on so­ci­ety is real and it is in­tended to ma­nip­u­late read­ers into be­liev­ing that it is true

New Straits Times - - OPINION - salle­hbuang@hot­ The writer for­merly served the At­tor­ney-Gen­eral’s Cham­bers be­fore he left for pri­vate prac­tice, the cor­po­rate sec­tor and the academia

ACYBER ac­tivist said to me re­cently that “fake is now the rage”, although the term “fake news” was sel­dom found in the main­stream me­dia two years ago. It was United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump who “trended” it last year.

Since then, other ter­mi­nol­ogy have sur­faced as its equiv­a­lent — counter-knowl­edge, al­ter­na­tive facts, post truths, com­par­a­tive nar­ra­tives, or just plain lies. Fake news is typ­i­cally pub­lished on web sites or so­cial me­dia ei­ther for profit or “so­cial in­flu­ence”.

Para­dox­i­cally, the im­pact of fake news on so­ci­ety is real. In one ac­tual case over a year ago which came to be known as “Piz­za­gate”, fake news pub­lish­ers cir­cu­lated a con­spir­acy the­ory that pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton and other Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal fig­ures were co­or­di­nat­ing a child traf­fick­ing ring out of a Wash­ing­ton, DC pizze­ria by the name of Comet Ping Pong. In a bizarre turn of events, a man who read the fake news drove from North Carolina to Wash­ing­ton, DC and fired shots with his as­sault ri­fle at the ac­tual Comet Ping Pong pizze­ria as part of a mis­guided vig­i­lante in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He was sub­se­quently ar­rested.

The three el­e­ments of fake news are false­hood, knowl­edge and in­tent. News pub­lished are fab­ri­cated and un­true, with the pub­lish­ers know­ing them to be false when they were pub­lished and dis­sem­i­nated. Fake news is dis­sem­i­nated by their au­thors with the in­tent that read­ers will be­lieve them to be true and act ac­cord­ingly. Au­thors in­tend the fake news they pub­lish will go vi­ral on the In­ter­net.

Fake news is not the same as “false news” — the lat­ter con­tains el­e­ments that are un­true or ex­ag­ger­ated but cir­cu­lated with­out the au­thor re­al­is­ing they are in­ac­cu­rate or un­true. This can hap­pen be­cause the au­thor has failed to ver­ify all the facts be­fore pub­lish­ing his story. Neg­li­gent and reck­less writ­ing (whilst they may at­tract le­gal li­a­bil­ity) are also not in the same cat­e­gory as fake news.

An English daily (The Guardian) has come up with a good def­i­ni­tion — fake news is any­thing that is “com­pletely made up, ma­nip­u­lated to re­sem­ble cred­i­ble jour­nal­ism and at­tract max­i­mum at­ten­tion, and with it, ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue”. This def­i­ni­tion de­mands a high thresh­old to be met, re­quir­ing proof of “in­tent” — that the aim of the false in­for­ma­tion is to ma­nip­u­late the reader into be­liev­ing that the story is true. The story (on the eve of polling in the 2013 gen­eral elec­tion) that thou­sands of Bangladeshis have been brought into the coun­try to vote for Barisan Na­sional is clearly fake news as it con­tains all the el­e­ments of the above def­i­ni­tion.

Some quar­ters claim that the term “fake news” has been used by politi­cians and govern­ment lead­ers to re­fer to any­thing they dis­agree with. As an ex­am­ple, Trump had tweeted on Feb 6 last year that “any neg­a­tive polls are fake news, just like CNN, ABC, NBC…”.

Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron has re­cently pro­posed an an­tifake law for France, hav­ing promised to his peo­ple to crack down on the pro­lif­er­a­tion of on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion in the coun­try. His aim is to em­power the govern­ment to scrap “fake news” from the In­ter­net and block web­sites dis­sem­i­nat­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion dur­ing po­lit­i­cal elec­tions. His rea­son­ing is that dis­sem­i­nat­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion poses a threat to pub­lic or­der.

Last June Sin­ga­pore Law and Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter K. Shan­mugam told re­porters that Sin­ga­pore in­tends to pass a new anti-fake news law this year af­ter a sur­vey re­vealed that 91 per cent of Sin­ga­pore­ans sup­port such a law. He stated that the new law is not meant to tar­get “er­ro­neous re­ports that have been in­ad­ver­tently pub­lished”.

The min­is­ter said that mis­in­for­ma­tion de­lib­er­ately used to spread hate, un­der­mine the in­tegrity of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, or for mon­e­tary profit is fake news. As an il­lus­tra­tion, a video of Mus­lims cel­e­brat­ing a Pak­istani cricket match vic­tory up­loaded on the In­ter­net was mis­con­strued as a cel­e­bra­tion of the 2015 ter­ror at­tacks in Paris. Viewed 500,000 times in two hours, it was a clear case of some­body ex­ploit­ing pub­lic emo­tions to stoke anti-Mus­lim feel­ings, he added.

Ger­many passed a new law last year in June to crack down hate speech, crim­i­nal ma­te­rial and fake news on so­cial net­work. The law re­quires so­cial me­dia plat­forms to re­move hate speech and other “ob­vi­ously il­le­gal post­ings” within 24 hours af­ter re­ceiv­ing a no­ti­fi­ca­tion or com­plaint, and to block other of­fen­sive con­tent within seven days. It came into force in Oc­to­ber.

Last month, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May an­nounced the es­tab­lish­ment of a spe­cial an­tifake news squad to com­bat “dis­in­for­ma­tion by state ac­tors and oth­ers”. Ex­plain­ing the move, she said: “We are liv­ing in an era of fake news and com­pet­i­tive nar­ra­tives.”

Malaysia, too, has an­nounced its in­ten­tion to en­act such a law. Min­is­ter in the Prime Min­is­ter’s De­part­ment Datuk Seri Aza­lina Oth­man Said said last week that a spe­cial com­mit­tee formed to draft such a law would seek ex­pert opin­ion on the me­dia, con­sti­tu­tional is­sues and the In­ter­net.

Ex­press­ing a con­trary view, Bar Coun­cil pres­i­dent Ge­orge Varugh­ese said Malaysia has enough laws to com­bat fake news and there­fore, there is no need for any new law. He agreed, how­ever, that maybe there are some el­e­ments in the new law that are not cov­ered in ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion.

We have to see the con­tent of the new law first be­fore we can an­swer whether such a law is nec­es­sary.

The three el­e­ments of fake news are false­hood, knowl­edge and in­tent.

Fake news is typ­i­cally pub­lished on web­sites or so­cial me­dia, ei­ther for profit or so­cial in­flu­ence.

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