Fake news is an extremely popular topic right now, and the term has become so widely used that people use it loosely without considering its implications. But fake news has serious consequences. It has swayed political outcomes in many countries, and the term has also been used to discredit all sorts of stories, especially by politicians who use it to their advantage.
According to CNN, in Kenya, just a week before its election on August 8th, fake news reports which falsely claimed that President Uhuru Kenyatta was in the lead spread widely on social media platforms. Using CNN and BBC logos, these fake reports looked as if they were published by the CNN and BBC. This may have seriously influenced the voters’ decisions and swayed the political outcome.
Not only that, but dictatorial leaders all over the world have also been using the term “Fake News” to restrict free speech. They’ve condemned their critics for using what they claim is “false information,” and discredited stories that are in any way against their regime and message.
As reported by TIME, in February, Syrian President Bashar Assad ignored claims of pervasive human rights violations at one of his military prisons which caused the death of 13,000 prisoners to be killed. He simply claimed that the report by Amnesty International was fake news. “You can forge anything these days” was his response to the report. Such an important and critical issue was simply dismissed as fake news.
Not only is fake news spreading in autocracies, it is also a problem in democracies.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s has led a brutal campaign against drugs. As reported by the Philippine National Police, the campaign has led to many bloody killings and more than 3,500 unsolved homicides since July 1. However, as reported by New York Times photojournalist Daniel Berehulak, in order to maintain a good reputation for the government despite these killings, a “keyboard army” is paid to commend the government.
These incidents of politicians making use of fake news to achieve their agenda illustrates the urgency to tackle this problem. Fake news is able to influence political outcomes, which may lead to the election of incapable leaders and encourage the behaviour of domineering rulers.
Although Google and Facebook, two of the largest sites of information dissemination, have implemented measures to counter the phenomenon of fake news—such as improving search engines and developing algorithms to reduce the circulation of false information in news feeds—they are still vulnerable to fake news. Google and Facebook made a huge error in the reporting of the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, by misidentifying the suspected shooter and providing false information about him.
These occurrences might explain the pessimistic result of a study published by the Pew Research Center on October 27 which sought to obtain the opinions on the future of fake news from more than 500 experts from various industries. More than half of the respondents polled said they believed the information environment will not improve.
Due to the Internet’s wide reach and ability to spread information almost instantaneously, fake news will not be eradicated any time soon. The presence of algorithms that lead to the formation of echo chambers even serves to worsen the issue, as people may fall further into the fake news trap. As a result, readers must remain skeptical and stay critical when reading news stories.
Teo Zi Ying (Singapore)