Fake news and its impact on journalism

Sempena World Press Freedom Day pada 3 Mei 2017, BFM Radio telah menemubual Ketua Pegawai Eksekutif MPI, Datuk Dr. Chamil Wariya mengenai berita palsu dan impaknya terhadap kewartawanan.

Temuramah itu disiarkan jam 8.30 pagi hari yang sama. Berikut disiarkan sedutan temuramah tersebut .

Fake news and its impact on journalism

1. The concept of “fake news” has also become a political tool – where “fake news” is used by certain parties to deflect from news that may hurt themselves – and is being applied to many contexts. Is there an essential definition of the term?

The concept of “fake news” is essentially a concept; anyone can make a claim to a concept without understanding and through misunderstanding. Concepts can be used and abused. It’s a permanent condition of mankind to struggle with these situations. It’s a major concern but not a novel controversy. What should we be concerned with is the processes and practices of news-making. Understanding fake-news lies there. News are fundamentally reported facts. Facts are essentially human efforts—they are investigated, verified and affirmed with other sources. But being human efforts, these works are essentially flawed especially when we desire to achieve swift good results regularly or nowadays, on a minute to minute basis. Fake news could be the result of these natural flaws, a reporter’s mishap, possibly. However, fake news would also be intentional; an act of to fabricate reality to serve an immoral agenda. Both of these kinds of fake news and their consequences should be handled differently. I think, understanding this distinction is important, since a political party could also be a source of real news, if and only if, the good principles of news-making are upheld.

2. Can you share the impacts that fake news have, to news providers and the people consuming it?

News are many things: our moral reminders, guides to physical and mental health, inspirers of careers choices, narrators of the absurd and the comedic and news essentially teach us of facts that are beyond our immediate contexts. If news are our sources of facts, then they are our sources for life decision-making. Fake news being untrue harm us. They create injustice and destroy good and beneficial relationships in our society. They convert us into extremist: since they might feed our inherent prejudices and biases. This is in turn will force people to make false and hasty generalizations of situations and scenarios—which is adding more to the already negative effect of real news. The news providers are no exceptions to this negative impacts; even the ones that are indifferent to its consequences. They are after all members of society. How much and how long could we benefit by ‘menangguk di keruh’ without it coming back to harm us or loved ones?

3. Malaysia launched an information verification portal, sebenarnya.my, as part of the government’s efforts to combat the spread of false news. Would you say the portal is good for the public?

Surely, some good should come out this work. But I think it is unfair for anyone to expect it to be a great panacea to the ailment of society. News-making and news consuming is after all an act of conviction. Let me elaborate. Another attribute of news is that it is communicated. Communication is symmetrical; meaning that it is a two-way process. Information might be shared but not necessarily believed. Put it bluntly, some people are habitually fixed with their ways. Our beliefs guide our choices. In news-making, there are modes of thinking such framing and agenda settings that shapes the direction of the contents shared, especially news that revolves around the opinions concerning human intentions or behaviours. It is not difficult to see these practices among our local news providers. In turn, this strategic mode of news-making attracts readers who already held and shared such inclinations. As you can see, learning the truth is not an easy process, chiefly the ones that are ideologically embedded. Some facts are only known years after its controversies. In the extreme, those who prefer unverified and non-verifiable news will cling to their fake news regardless of any good done by this portal or any principled journalists.

4. Is outlawing “false news” an answer, or is this a slippery slope to political censorship?

I do not share this extreme belief that law is only solution to our society’s problem. Like any human effort it is easily misused and abused and extreme censorship is always lurking in the mind of the intolerant. No, don’t get me wrong, we need legal mechanism but ideally I would prefer and believe in the slow and painful process of education. My contention against legalism is that it is inhibited by its resources. I’m not sure if we have the manpower and technology to monitor and apprehend officially every anonymous falsifier online. Furthermore, from my layperson understanding, most legal rules are guided by narrow and restricted definitions. How do we define fake or false news legally? Some everyday facts are easily determined so it is not controversial to find its untruth. But some commented public issues involved value judgments or are ideologically driven which divides the society into two. No narrow legal definition could or should attempt to falsify such issues. I do not think that it is right to leave such issues to the courts. I could only accept a legal solution if the law and its enforcers are able to make such hair-splitting distinctions. Even in this condition, education is the first step and the law, if necessary, complements it in the background. Our people needs to appreciate the risks and harms of sharing false information online.

5. In the context of Malaysia, how do we guarantee editorial independence of sebenarnya.my?

Is that not an extreme expectation? How do we guarantee the editorial independence of any media out there? Such things could not be known factually, unless you are within the editorial circle. The outside observers could only whisper among themselves and suspect foul play. I sense that the word “guarantee” is not only humanly impossible in this context but bare a deep urge to control our political fear—if pursued might lead to unwanted situations. Additionally, just like any idealised western concept of freedom, the word independence is disputed and permutable from practice to practice and from situation to situation. An editor might claim independent from the government but still be influenced by other factors like conflicting commercial interests or injurious foreign powers. The idea of editorial independence should be broaden and should be kept watch with critical eyes. In Malaysia it seems to me, we have forgotten that a claim of independence does not necessarily, if I may use the word, “guarantee” equal room of diversified perspectives and opinions; which is a key recipe for democracy. Just like a controlled editor, a free editor could still be narrow-minded and restrictive in his or her mode of framing. Facing this problem, we could choose to be simple and give reasonable trust to the Sebenarnya.my editorial team and be critical and criticise them when the occasion arise the need for it.

6. What is the source of perceived mistrust in relation to traditional media? Are social media the sole facilitators of this phenomenon?

It appears that nowadays, our traditional media are perceived to be polarised towards their respective political ideologies. This practice, especially for political topics, disrupts any reasonable claim of objectivity and truth. They are thought to be biased and no longer serve the broader interest and benefit of society which naturally create mistrust among readers. Oppositely, I think, in this country, the mistrust predates any damage done by social media. Rather, the social media is the awaited outlet of those who were frustrated by the polarisations.

7. Who are the actors producing untrue news, distributing it, and consuming it, and with what real impact?

Well, I can’t point them out concretely or individually. I can only describe them generally, and be mistaken but these actors do share some characteristics. One of it is that, the producers, distributers and consumers of untrue news are ignorant of the facts that the news are false. The untrained producers could have devise news with no sound principles. They have taken hearsays without verifying it, or affirmed them to credible experts and authorities. Those who share and consume simply take them at face value, uncritically. These are tell-tale signs of ignorance. They are driven by the temptation of gossiping: stories that are controversial and scandalous. They generally are unaware of the consequences of their actions. The other group is the opposite. The producers, in fact, understood the nature of their actions. It is an intended process that serves some specific interest or agenda. And some are anarchic by purpose. They have no real purpose except that they love to see a chaotic society. In reality, the circulation of false news is the mixture of both groups; accidental and intentional.

8. What can each stakeholder do to counter the stream of “fake news”?

Educate themselves, be critical of the contents shared especially on difficult cases, remind their loved ones and colleagues of the risks and dangers, and open ourselves to opinions of experts and advice of authorities. It begins by admitting our ignorance to the presented matter. I shall leave the details of this recommendation to their specific contexts and fields.

9. What suggestions would you suggest for mainstream mass media to combat fake news? The challenge here is escaping so-called trending topics produced massively by social media.

If my observation on political polarisations done by our local traditional media is correct then these media, mainstream or not would have to rethink their editorial practice. The problem of trending topics that are false could not be combatted by the mainstream media alone. Like I said earlier, information sharing is a two way process. The readers, the consumers should have a change of attitude. Both media and social media users need to realise the problem of trendy news. Verification takes time. Outside the context of journalism, some truth might take years. Trending a false news could produce a mob like reactions: hysterical, highly emotional, demanding hurried actions where careful and precise procedures should take place. What the local mainstream media could only do is to provide a credible alternative to the whole scenario. I believed that the mistrust could be overcome to a degree. I would not ask the mainstream media to adopt a different political ideology. We are fixed with our ways, so be it. But I would ask to them give room to their competitors and oppositions to speak in their page. Our country, our people and our media are especially harmed by these restrictive political barrier. A degree of political openness and respect in terms of commentaries should bring trust to some readers, even if the editor held a different view. This return of trust, I hope will bring a general demand to the practice of journalism—political or non-political contents.

10. To what extent are audiences sceptical about the veracity of this kind of information, and to what extent inclined to accept as true as any “facts” that conform to their worldview?

I think I have alluded these issues in some of the previous questions. News-making is a human effort. The product shares the flaws of its producer. Knowing that they will be mistake, the question will be what are the basis of our scepticism? To the trained and acquire a sound basis, scepticism is a healthy behaviour. They are able to be critical and identify truthful ones from false. To the untrained, scepticism might take a different shape. Experiencing fake news might turn them into pessimists and cynics. For them, untruth or partial untruth is a permanent condition of news-sharing and that news providers are essentially pursuing their own selfish interests. These are essentially the characteristics of some of us who lives in a post-truth reality; that truth is anarchic and free for all. Those who lived the post-truth way might in fact continue to consume and share fake news even when they “understand” that it is fake. We are all driven by our beliefs and values, shared or not, and that our perception are shaped by these worldviews. But those who subscribe by post-truth worldview will bring more harm since they reject the possibility of truth, knowledge and meaning.

11. In what ways can the demand for quality journalism be reinforced?

The answer to this question echoes my particular suggestion from question 10. We are in the global situation where the media and by proxy the journalists, ironically by title, no longer monopolizes the medium of communication. The internet and its social media remove this barrier of entry. To some the careers, organisations, and the products of journalist are an outdated practice. This maybe, but the fundamental problems of practicing journalism, remains the same since its inception: the journalists are always confronted by ethical choices. Although the problem might not always be divisive, they frequently find problems deciding whether to pursue commercially popular news or bring real, difficult issue to the table. News media adapting to the minute to minute trends while loosening the principle of verification is one of the result of this difficult choice. Before any demand for the reinforcement journalistic quality is made, we must understand the implication of these ethical choices. Serious, difficult choices are met by journalists on a daily basis: to pry or not to pry, to criticise or not, to wait or not, to balance the view or not, to publish or not. These difficult choices are not easily understood by the audience but those who demand quality journalism could help to lessen these difficult choices. In UK, a news media overburdened by cost and dropping sales are supported with donations by those who believed in the cause. Well intent and critical journalism are available in this country. They could do better if they are supported not morally but financially by their supporters.