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Start spreading the (false) news

In June 2011, an article in l-Orizzont claimed that a mysterious, blast-like sound heard off Dingli was in fact a Libyan Scud missile being intercepted by a Nato missile as it headed towards Malta.

Then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Nato and the Libyan embassy strongly rejected the report as false. Despite the chorus of rejection, the story still was deemed as fact by many and went viral on social media.

Turn the clock forward to February 3, 2015 and a report in a San Marino online news reports cites an ISIS propaganda journal claiming a plan to launch a shower of missiles towards Sicily. Probably because of its very dodgy, unverified source, the claim hardly made it to the international mainstream media… but in Malta it was reported on most news websites.

We chose not to report the claim because we felt it would have been legitimising probable false news intended merely to spark panic.

We are living in dangerous times and we do not need to resort to fabricated news to create the shock factor to generate online hits. Those barbarians from Islamic State are doing a good enough job.

Reporters have a duty to grill the authorities and investigate any incidents they deem to be in the public interest. But editors ultimately have a choice whether to run with the story.

It would have been the easiest thing to present as fact the persistent reports that our newsroom received last Friday that a ship with 800 armed ISIS fighters was approaching Malta. At one point, we were even informed that Maltese soldiers were taking on strategic positions at Upper Barrakka. But after dispatching reporters to probe the claims we established they were nothing but rumours which became more incredulous as the day went by.

Does it mean we always make the right call? Of course not. Does it mean we always take the authorities’ word? God forbid. Authorities have an interest to put a lid on certain stories, which means we have to dig deeper.

But I would rather err on the side of caution. At Times of Malta, we insist with our reporters to always try to get every facet of the story. If there’s only one side to the story, then we try to make sure it’s as credible as possible.

Sharing stories online, and being the first to do so, has become an inextricable part of contemporary culture. In most cases, sharing sensational stories is borne out of naivety. But let’s remember the hoaxers who wrote the story in the first place could have ill intentions.

It was a relief to hear social network Facebook recently saying it plans to start filtering out bogus stories in an effort to become a more reliable news source for users.

But until then we all have a duty to check the reliability of the source before sharing fiction. In the last few days I’ve seen people sharing popular parody and stories from satire news outlets like The Onion and declaring them as fact. Stories on satire sites get tremendous traction because they feed on people’s fears and curiosity.

If my Facebook news feed is to be believed, Sharia law has hit certain towns in the UK, Pope Francis said that all dogs go to heaven… and Celine Dion has just died. Again!

An image from a local news site has also been doctored to be presented as fact.

There are several ways to check whether a news story is false. Just a quick search through Google News normally produces an answer. There are always websites like snopes.com or truthorfiction.com which highlight the false news stories making the rounds.

With no end in sight to radical extremism, it is becoming more important for the media to weed out fact from the cesspit of fiction.

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