Written by Abigail C. Keane
With the emergence of new media, that is, the Internet and all its glorious new forms of communication, the way individuals obtain and spread information has undergone changes beyond what was imaginable a few decades ago. An especially concerning issue is the way we now receive news – if in the past, it was mostly through well-known credible traditional news sources or somewhat questionable gossip, these days, there are millions of unvetted websites uploading and posting news stories that aren’t always 100% truthful (if at all). However, the real problem lies in the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate what constitutes a credible source and reliable information. It has gotten to the point where even known news sites, such as the BBC, are publishing articles on how to spot fake news.
A Brief History of Journalism
The evolution of modern day journalism essentially hinges of the 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press, also known as the Hutchins Commission, because that was a key step to forming standardized journalistic practices and principles of ethics. After World War II, it became apparent that the freedom of the press was at risk as it was susceptible to the influence of the government and economic power; influence manifests itself in the form of propaganda or advertising.
The main reason changes needed to be implemented, according to the Commission, was to invigorate the press to act as a watchdog and present relatively unbiased news that could criticize the state or other major stakeholders. This idea, calling the media the Fourth Estate, ultimately aimed to protect democracy by preventing external powers from affecting what gets into the news and what doesn’t, how it is presented, etc. Overall, it was a way to ensure that civil society had a voice and that balanced political discourse could persevere.
The point: let truthfulness and accuracy reign in the media.
Regulation and the New Media
This was all well and good while traditional media worked relatively independently and with the established principles of ethics in mind. For instance, in the UK, the vast majority of publication houses (including the media giant Immediate Media Co) are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Thus, if there are accuracy issues, privacy breaches and such, these problems are addressed by IPSO, and media companies are held accountable.
While it may be true that such regulating practices have their limits, the new media landscape, especially social media, seems to lack such regulation altogether. At the moment, regulation is mainly restricted to matters of hate speech and (age) inappropriate content – even then, not all posts get flagged down.
So, what happens to all the fake news being posted online? Well, mostly nothing. It may get shot down by reasonable individuals commenting under such posts, but removing such information from social media has much broader and complicated implications. Ultimately, regulation policies and codes of ethics are lagging behind the rapid changes occurring in the news and media, changes we haven’t really noticed or paid enough attention to until recently.
The Irony of Democracy
Currently, the main debate taking place is: should we censor fake news? While some countries, such as Egypt, address that question head-on by saying “YES,” other states are in chaos, not knowing how to deal with the problem. The reason fake news censorship is considered so dangerous is that it gives the government, or some other regulatory body, the power to decide what constitutes true and false information. Taken to the worst case scenario, that could imply tyrannical control over speech – a big no-no for democracy.
Thus, we are now at a point where many of us want change, but we are afraid of it – and rightly so.
The concerns being brought up by free speech advocates and lobby groups, though often self-serving, are by no means blown out of proportion. The means through which governments would try to protect democracy, that is, through censorship, could fundamentally undermine democracy itself.
Power to the People
There seem to be two paths leading forward: let states censor fake news or let fake news run loose. What many don’t realize is that there’s at least one more option – let the people take action.
Social media doesn’t abide by the rules of traditional media and presents challenges that are seemingly impossible to tackle in tandem with democratic values. Maybe social media, in its current form and with all its flaws, holds the key. Instead of relying on some authority to solve the problem, individuals can call out and denounce fake news posts and sources by themselves. For instance, we can report posts that contain false information – an action many are already taking.
What is more important, and necessary, to correctly identify fake news stories is to critically evaluate them and stop believing everything you read on the Internet. Instead of just blindly trusting whatever information is thrown your way and re-posting that shit, take a minute, do some more research – get your facts straight!
Until states and other regulatory bodies figure out how to deal with fake news (if that time will ever come), people can catch up to the rapid media changes of our time and adjust their mentality. It’s time to stop the trend of deceit, if not by reporting fake news, then at least by thinking about what you’re reading.