Fake news threatens media freedom

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Copyright: Panos

Speed read

  • Fake news spread over social media is reaching alarming proportions
  • The intention is to mislead, usually for political or economic gain
  • Fake news can swing opinions in societies with large, poorly educated populations

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Fake news — including fake science news — is taking the world by storm. So much so that governments all over the world are now warning of action against fake news, some on the lines of what they did earlier to traditional media.
Sample these headlines:

Pope backs Trump
Hillary sells weapons to ISIS
Weather Channel founder tells CNN “climate change is a hoax”
Deodorant, vitamin E, chips, tomatoes increase chances of developing cancer.
Are genetically-modified crops ‘Frankenstein’ foods?

The first two went viral on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 US elections and gained so much attention that BuzzFeed published an analysis on how they had outperformed real news on Facebook. [1] Fake news items such as these on regular and social media channels were swallowed by millions of people in recent months.
Examples of fake news include a research downplaying the fact that cigarette smoking and second-hand smoke are bad for human health. Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, co-founders of the website Retraction Watch, which detects fake news on academia, have also cited questionable findings published in scientific journals, including one that claimed jet plane vapour trails contain toxic materials, not just ice crystals.
Other hugely questionable studies include those that linked vaccines to autism, the connection of which has long been debunked, and one that claimed HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. While all were eventually retracted by their publishers, it only raises the question of how they got published to begin with. [2]

“Populations that are largely unschooled can be easily duped. This is especially the case in developing countries of Asia and Africa.”

Crispin Maslog

Fake news and propaganda

Fake news is fabricated with the intention of misleading readers, usually for political gain or economic profit. It has been defined as “a catch-all term encompassing propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and hoaxing — including the spheres of science and medicine.” [2]
Before the term fake news became popular, most people would often use the term propaganda. Propaganda has been used since ancient times for political gain. The Roman consul, Octavian, is said to have resorted to disinformation to win his wars against Mark Antony. [1]  During World Wars 1 and 2, the US and British governments used propaganda effectively in the struggle against Germany.
Enter the Internet and the fake news economy. Here we see small groups of people taking advantage of sensational news items to build up readership for advertising and influence people. Propaganda and Internet fake news are similar in that both “distort the truth for emotional persuasion, seeking to drive action.” [1]
But Trump can be credited with popularising the term fake news. At his first press conference as President-elect in 2016, he railed at journalists interviewing him: “You are fake news!” Since then, Trump has been regularly accusing major media outlets of peddling fake news on his Twitter feed.  
In Asia, fake news is spread mainly for political rather than economic or scientific reasons. [3] 
In the 2015 Indonesian elections, fake news was used to portray Widodo as having an ethnic Chinese and a Catholic background in a Muslim state. But it did not affect his popularity and he was elected President. In the 2016 Philippine election, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte reportedly had an army of “trolls” to regularly post up propaganda. His trolls even received partial credit for his victory. [4] In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once a spokesman for his Bharatiya Janata Party, is said to have come to power in 2014 through support from well-oiled troll machinery working on his behalf. 

Fighting fake news
Analysts believe that the proliferation of fake news is fueled in part by lagging educational standards. Populations that are largely unschooled can be easily duped. This is especially the case in developing countries of Asia and Africa. Even in the US and developed countries of Europe, fake news more easily spreads among the less-educated sections of society.
It is one small step from superstition to belief in fake news. Science illiteracy easily leads to false beliefs.  Ignorance breeds gullibility.
Fake news undermines scientific credibility, especially in underdeveloped countries with an unschooled public where public trust in science and scientists is low to begin with. Fake science news will erode public trust in science and scientists. [5]
This makes it imperative for scientists and the science community to take every opportunity to expose fake news for what it is. In the US, some initiatives have been taken to teach students how to spot fake news. The National Academy of Sciences should take as their mandate a campaign against fake news and educate the public on science. The case for media literacy and science education therefore becomes urgent in the digital era, where 60 per cent of the population gets its information from social media.

“This makes it imperative for scientists and the science community to take every opportunity to expose fake news for what it is.”

Crispin Maslog

This calls also for the providers of social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to strengthen efforts to police their ranks. Better self-policing than policing by government.
If self-censorship fails to stem the tide of fake news, there is a real danger of governments taking over social media regulations in developing societies. The signs are already there in South East-Asia, Indonesia’s Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono warns. [3]
Many governments in the region are labelling most media criticism as false, opening the way for state regulation of social media.
Singapore is now studying the possibility of introducing a law to “force social media companies to remove misleading reports,” says Singapore law and home affairs Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam. [6]
Shanmugam says he was inspired by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to introduce legislation to “force social media companies to withdraw fake news stories from the Internet as fast as 24 hours or else face penalties.” [6]
That is the writing on the wall.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.


[1] James Carson What is fake news? Its origins and how it grew in 2016 (The Telegraph, 16 March 2017)
[2] Michael Hiltzik It's not just politics: 2016 was an epidemic year for fake news in science, too (Los Angeles Times, 3 January 2017)
[3] David Hutt Fake news, real danger in Southeast Asia (Asia Times, 9 May 2017)
[4] Crispin C. Maslog Fake News: Lecture (Holy Angel University, Philippines, 17 May 2016) 
[5] Crispin C. Maslog Asia-Pacific Analysis: Raising public trust in science (SciDev.Net, 4 January 2014)
[6] Singapore government eyes new laws to combat fake news (Sputnik News International, 20 June 2017)