The Rise of Fake ‘Fake News’

No two people can agree on a definition for the term Fake News. Misinformation, propaganda, and misleading news content have plagued journalism for a long time but the usage of the term Fake News has spiked since 2016. The prevalence and universal nature of its usage prompted Collins Dictionary to name it the Word of The Year for 2017. The phenomenon of overuse and subsequent abuse of the term Fake News can be traced to a BuzzFeed article about the small town of Veles in Macedonia. The town’s younger locals had hit the jackpot by making news websites that ran stories of a peculiar nature. These websites targeted a niche audience of ardent supporters of a popular right-wing politician who was contesting in the 2016 US presidential elections. The economic incentive was in the extremely lucrative advertising on Facebook and Google AdSense, and they earned only when these websites ran sensational and false stories. These stories seemed credible because the publishing websites made sure the domain names sounded American and did not give them away. Thus, the Macedonians made money and the tumultuous journey of the term Fake News began. Political analysts tried to explain the results of the 2016 US Presidential Elections through the all-encompassing term.

A few weeks into 2017, the growing popularity of this new catch-phrase led to politicians in the US using it to malign journalists they disliked. While many social media users continue to indiscriminately cry Fake News when they encounter news that challenges their beliefs, the most dangerous consequence of this abuse occurs when politicians weaponize it to discredit verified facts.

Unfortunately, the trend has caught on with politicians and regimes throughout the world. In Myanmar, amidst the harrowing Rohingya refugee crisis, U Kyaw San Hla, an officer in Rakhine’s state security ministry claimed that there was no such thing as Rohingya and rubbished it as Fake News. Despite credible reports (based on testimonies of the wife of the victim) by news agencies of the police torture of Xie Yang, a rights-activist, Chinese State media declared these claims as Fake News made up by Xie. Spain’s foreign minister dismissed police violence against Catalonians during their independence referendum as Fake News despite overwhelming, contradictory photographic and videographic evidence. India’s most recent encounter with the authorities and politicians blatantly disregarding evidence as Fake News occurred when politicians associated with the U.P’s ruling Party denied U.P. Police cremating the body of the Hathras gangrape victim, which was captured on video.

Governments throughout the world are moving towards the legislative provision and tighter control on the Media to save their citizens from ambiguous Fake News. This alarming trend is parallel to the popularity of the term itself. For instance, Singapore, a country not famous for its free Press, passed The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in May 2019 to protect citizens from Fake News. The Bill arms authorities with powers to regulate the citizens’ private chat groups and content on online platforms. Egypt’s parliament passed a law for similar reasons in July 2018 where the State could block social media accounts and penalize journalists held to be publishing fake news. By December 2018, Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Egypt led the world in the number of arrests of journalists for publishing Fake News with 19 imprisonments.

The magnitude of internet penetration has made it a popular primary source of information to millions. In such an environment, the widespread propagation of false information is pollution. Information pollution is a social ill and an attempt by a government to tackle it without an intention to censor criticism should be welcomed. The first step- before introducing any legislation- should be to clearly define the types and the impact of the variety of false information.

First Draft’s 2017 report on information disorders, for Council of Europe authored by Claire Wardle, provides a comprehensive lexicon for analyzing this issue- beyond the inadequate classification of all information pollutants as Fake News- a term increasingly used to vilify journalists. The report classifies these pollutants as disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation- collectively called Information Disorders. While misinformation is plain false information, disinformation is deliberately designed to cause harm. Malinformation is accurate information that is skillfully used to cause harm. It is particularly convincing because it is based partly or wholly on truth, and therefore seems more credible. It is particularly convincing because it is based partly or wholly on truth, and therefore seems more credible. Mis- and dis- information falls across a spectrum of seven types of content- satire/parody, misleading content, imposter content, fabricated content, false connection, false context, and manipulated content. All of these three disorders have three common elements- Agent, Message, and Interpreter. Clubbing of all problematic content as Fake News has resulted in the skewed perspective of looking at the issue as a textual problem alone. The more persuasive images, videos, and graphic content are out of focus. The harm caused by these disorders falls across a spectrum. A headline by the satirical news website, ‘The Onion’, can be harmful when misinterpreted. In comparison, the propagation of anti-vaccination beliefs that contributed to an outbreak of Measles in regions with better access to vaccines is a significantly more sinister effect.

The report stresses the importance of coming up with a shared definition to describe the accuracy and relevance of media content. Policymakers, legislators, and researchers with a common understanding can begin to frame solutions. Information Disorders diminish the value of truth and are therefore a public hazard. They should be addressed with the same seriousness as other ills afflicting society. It certainly is not an issue that can be solved overnight, but coming up with a clear unambiguous lexicon is a good start.