“Fake News”: Neither Rare nor New

Posted by cmfr | Posted in Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 04-05-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro


PUBLIC INTEREST in “fake news” surged in 2016 when then candidate for United States President Donald Trump accused a reporter’s newspaper of disseminating false information.  President Trump  frequently accuses the liberal US news media, particularly The New York Times, of spreading lies about him and his administration.

There are echoes of the same accusation in President Rodrigo Duterte’s rants against local and international media, which he has accused of spreading falsehoods.  But the many online  sites maintained by Mr. Duterte’s partisans, in their effort to  preserve and enhance his positive public image and to combat what they claim is inaccurate and unfair reporting by some media organizations, have also been accused of spreading fake news.

Other sites with similar agendas, for example those obviously focused on generating public opinion for or against certain political figures, have also proliferated online.  Both Facebook and Twitter have also been flooded with accounts meant to swing public opinion for their patrons and against the latter’s rivals by spreading fraudulent information.

While it seems to be a new phenomenon because of its pronounced presence in social media, “fake news” is not new, and is just another name for disinformation, or the deliberate dissemination of false reports in order to manipulate public opinion.

Fake news is widely presumed to consist of manufactured details (e.g., “alternative facts” based on the spurious claim that there are “multiple truths”) intended to create a predetermined impression among media publics. But it can consist as well of interpreting, emphasizing and arranging details, even if these are accurate, according to the disseminator’s political, economic or ideological agenda. Known in journalism as “framing,” or arranging the details of a report according to a chosen design, the way a report is organized enables journalists to manipulate public perceptions of an event or issue of significance.

However, fake news transmitters can also misuse certain terms to provoke calculated public reactions to the actions of individuals or groups in the news by labeling them with such common pejorative terms as terrorists, extremists, militants, insurgents, etc., without defining these emotionally-laden words.

Some examples:

In 1898, the tabloids of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer  were at least partly responsible for the public frenzy for war against Spain that followed the sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The yellow press blamed Spain for the sinking, and campaigned for a US declaration of war. It was later established that what was responsible was an onboard fire that caused the ship magazine to explode.

In the Philippines in 2010, the Mamasapano incident in which 58 people were killed including 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) was framed as a “massacre” by the Philippine press and media. In addition to reinforcing majority stereotypes that Muslims are brutal and treacherous, the reports helped derail the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

More recently, exaggerated estimates of the extent of the crime and the drug problem, uncritically reported by the media from sources they presume to be authoritative, have helped in much of the Philippine public’s support for the extreme methods being used to deal with it, as well as for the restoration of the death penalty.

Filipino journalists are familiar with a Philippine media version of fake news known as “kuryente,” consisting of false information provided by a partisan source, which at various times have been published or aired at the price of public misinformation and confusion.

The above costs of fake news lead to even worse consequences for society. In addition to the loss of lives when false information leads to public support for conflict and war, it also debases the informed  discourse necessary in a democracy, enhances already existing biases and stereotypes, leads to citizen reluctance to access alternative sources, and discourages  engagement with public affairs.

While there is almost no limit to the number of examples of fake news in the old media of print and broadcasting, it has assumed epidemic proportions online, where deliberate untruths are disseminated through bogus “news sites” created to advance the interests of various groups, and trolls in the pay of political interests. In addition to confusing netizens, these sites and the fraudulent “information” they provide also discourage them from participation and involvement in the discussion of public issues.

Critical reading of both the old and new media by a media literate public is among the obvious antidotes to the proliferation of fake news. But understanding the political economy of the mass media can best provide the framework needed to enable media consumers and users to navigate their way through the billions of bytes of information that daily seek their attention and demand their allegiance to certain views. Journalists  themselves also need to examine their own practice and to exert greater efforts to overcome their own biases  to prevent their contributing to the confusion driven by the proliferation of fake news that is  being used to further the agenda of  interests for whom the manipulation of public opinion through the media is crucial.  Fake news is an old problem that demands solutions already implicit in the ethical and professional standards of journalism and  in the necessity of  educating the public in these media-saturated times.