Misinformation and disinformation as tools of fake news

Misinformation and disinformation as tools of fake news

Disinformation and misinformation are both different to (quality) journalism which complies with professional standards and ethics. At the same time, they are also different from cases of weak journalism that falls short of its own promise. Problematic journalism includes, for example, ongoing (and uncorrected) errors that arise from poor research or sloppy verification. It includes sensationalising that exaggerates for effect and hyper-partisan selection of facts at the expense of fairness. But this not to assume an ideal of journalism that somehow transcends all embedded narratives and points of view, with sub-standard journalism being coloured by ideology. Rather it is to signal all journalism contains narratives, and that the problem with sub-standard journalism is not the existence of narratives, but poor professionalism. This is why weak journalism is still not the same as disinformation or misinformation. Nevertheless, poor quality journalism sometimes allows disinformation and misinformation to originate in or leak into the real news system. But the causes and remedies for weak journalism are different from the case of disinformation and misinformation.

Why not simply “fake news”?

US President Donald Trump has appropriated that to undermine media he does not like. So journalists and academics have settled on “disinformation” to describe this dangerous form of “alternative facts” that has the potential to undermine civic institutions and democracy itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as information intended to mislead. We could add another layer: the identity of the perpetrator is often disguised.     

Disinformation is an old story

Mobilising and manipulating information were a feature of history long before modern journalism established standards which define news as a genre based on particular rules of integrity. An early record dates back to ancient Rome, when Antony met Cleopatra and his political enemy Octavian launched a smear campaign against him with “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets.” The perpetrator became the first Roman Emperor and “fake news had allowed Octavian to hack the republican system once and for all”. But the 21st century has seen the weaponization of information on an unprecedented scale. Powerful new technology makes the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by States, populist politicians, and dishonest corporate entities, as they are shared by the uncritical public. The platforms have become fertile ground for computational propaganda, ‘trolling’ and ‘troll armies’; ‘sock-puppet’ networks’, and ‘spoofers’. Then, there is the arrival of profiteering ‘troll farms’ around political elections. Although times and technologies are different, history can give us insight into the causes and consequences of the contemporary phenomenon of ‘information disorder’. To ensure nuanced reporting of this crisis, journalists, journalism trainers, and educators (along with their students) are encouraged to study disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, and satire as historical features of the communications strategies.                                                                      

Social Media impact

The crisis about fake news on various social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, You-Tube, Instagram and several popular communication apps including WhatsApp, Messenger, and many others are worth attention for many reasons. In this new era, most of us are always connected to the internet and this is how we receive, sift and filter the daily news. Overtly and by implication, the online news portals and social media have much to teach us about current events, such as human trafficking, the fight for women’s equality, the environmental crisis, and a myriad of political, social, economic and cultural issues. And as a global platform, social media has made leaps in the last two decades, becoming a rich terrain for visual analysis by using big data analytics. Social media scholars are now digging into this vast terrain to examine the effect of fake news in our society. In this new era “always connected to the internet”, the role of friends and family is also amplified. However, a large number of countries still revere strong ties to print media and traditional news organizations.                                         

The Misinformation Effect – Daily life examples

It is often difficult to get verified correct information from an established credible source. Even then, the information provided by such a source can be plagued by misinformation.

In October 2017, the news about Las Vegas massacre which killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 people, started pouring in the Google and Facebook displaying false reports on the unfolding tragedy, underscoring the failure of the internet’s largest news platforms to manage misinformation. Facebook searches for the name of the misidentified suspect generated a number of fake news, and the social network’s “Trending Topic” page for the shooting directed the users toward more false reports, including stories by Russian propaganda site Sputnik with headlines such as “FBI Says Las Vegas Shooter Has Connection With Daesh Terror (ISIS) Group.” Sputnik later removed this article and replaced it with a story making the opposite claim -“FBI Says Las Vegas Shooter Has No Connection With Daesh Terror (ISIS) Group” without acknowledging its original false story” (Kathleen Chaykowski, 2017). Later it was found that the shooter was actually Mr. Stephen Paddock, a US citizen and a habitual high-stakes gambler who lived in a retirement community in Mesquite, Nevada, about 82 miles away from the shooting scene.

In a similar incident in June 2017, where “ISIS” claimed responsibility for a deranged gambler shooting at a Manila casino in the Philippines also turned out to be fake news. As these ISIS claims are pretty much a work of fiction, it paves the way for deeper investigation of all its past claims, as well as the functioning of the entire ISIS network. Indeed, there appears to be a desperate attempt to link the shooting to Muslims, even though authorities said they had not found any evidence of a connection with ISIS (Imtiaz Muqbil 2017).

Paris 2015 – Another example of misinformation relating to the violent extremist attack that took place in Paris 2015 year, is the video clip posted by a social media use of the Eiffel Tower turning off its lights following the attack as an act of solidarity. The original post went viral then after until it was later revealed that the Eiffel Towers lights turn off after 1 am every day. Another example of misinformation is an image of what appears to be a march in Germany of supporters standing with Paris. This, in fact, was not the case, the march was an anti-immigration march, and the image was purposely cropped by the original poster to hide signs and banners that were carried by the protestors.

Asian countries have not been immune to the fake news phenomenon. The run-up to the South Korean presidential election and the Indonesian gubernatorial elections were dominated with fake news, causing both governments to mull legal measures to clamp down on the trend. And a string of episodes has also exposed worries about the extent to which fake news can potentially have a dangerous impact on real-world politics. As reported by Russel Goldman in New York Time (2016), a hoax story reported in December 2017 spread the threats of nuclear war between Pakistan and Israel. It caused panic in the streets of Pakistan.

Efforts to deal with fake news in Europe

Leading the efforts to combat the spread of fake news, the European Commission (EC) has launched a public consultation to gather the views of a wide range of stakeholders on fake news. This first in the world consultation process was complemented with a Eurobarometer public opinion survey and launched in early 2018 to measure and analyse the perceptions and concerns of the European citizens about fake news. In addition, the companies, such as, Google, Facebook, Twitter and others who are operating in EU are being forced to take their own steps to curb fake news. Or they would do what China has been doing- bar or ban all foreign social media.

Paulina Pochrebiennik

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