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Fake off

If you believe media should be free to scrutinise the use and abuse of power, do not let anyone undermine it

Donald Trump has been be crowned president of the 'free world', whatever that means. Claims that the so-called 'fake news' phenomenon alone led him to his throne are grossly exaggerated, though it certainly did give him a helping hand.

But there is one thing which is often overlooked - the way so-called 'fake news' is fast becoming a tactic to avoid a fact-based argument. Trump and dozens of other dodgy politicians and institutions are becoming quick to silence legitimate questions through the abusive label 'fake news'. 

At a press conference last week, Trump called CNN "fake news", after he deliberately confused it with a poorly researched story from Buzzfeed about the Russia connection intelligence dossier. By mixing the two news organisations as examples of the growing problem of "fake news", Trump painted credible journalism with the same tainted brush which, ironically, gave him a bit of a boost during his campaign.

Crying ‘fake news’ is fast becoming a tactic to avoid a fact-based argument

Trump did not bat an eyelid when a fake news site claimed the Pope was backing him for the presidency. But millions may have believed the story... and their originators got rich on the lie.

We are even starting to see the same underhand tactics being bandied about in Malta. When The Malta Independent's content director Pierre Portelli recently asked the prime minister for an interview, Joseph Muscat's texted reply was “What about? Fake news?”

The prime minister probably capitalised on pathetic local news reports which claimed that last month's Afriqiyah Airlines hijack in Malta had been staged. When the mainstream media tackles an issue of perception, as far-fetched as it may be, it does not make it fake. If it completely fabricates a story that's another issue. 

Muscat's facetious reply was probably intended to dent the credibility of news organisations whose job it is to act as a watchdog to the institutions. Because you disagree with the editorial stand of a news organisation doesn't make it fake.

But let's get some things straight: false news has been with us, in different guises, since long before anyone ever had the chance to tweet it - from the sensational tabloid story intended to harm political rivals to the village gossip at your local grocer's.

But thanks to Facebook, especially, the problem has grown from a malignant tumour into a deadly cancer.

The disruptions of industries like news media meant a lot of news is being consumed off platforms like Facebook. And Facebook is mainly interested in clicks through its algorithmic personalisation and ad-targeting products. But there is one problem - till this day Facebook refuses to acknowledge itself as a major news distributor despite the fact that it chooses the ‘news’ you should read.

While the idea of producing sensational stories is partly intended to hurt someone, the ultimate aim nowadays is to make money off clickbait. 

According to BuzzFeed, a teenager publishing pro-Donald Trump stories was reportedly earning up to $3,000 per day when his cooked up story went viral on Facebook.

A fake story claiming that Isis militants have taken over a German town makes for more thrilling reading… and it's cheaper too. And that's why we see stories being cooked up and uploaded online daily.

The truth might not always be exciting. It takes time, effort and money, but this is why we need to protect the mainstream media.

Fake news is an attack on truth. Therefore, it is the duty of anybody who calls himself a journalist to combat it

I heard many, including journalists, saying we should not tackle the issue of fake news because it's anti-democratic and akin to censorship. But I strongly believe that while journalists worth their salt are required to remain impartial, they should pretend to be under no obligation to be impartial about lies and hate/dangerous speech.

Fake news is an attack on truth. Therefore, it is the duty of anybody who calls himself a journalist to combat it.

Established media outlets would do well to carry out a good examination of conscience. I draw a clear line between news agencies that produce an inaccurate story because they failed to double check their sources and those that intentionally twist the truth. We have a duty to explain to the public the difference between responsible journalism and reckless reporting disguised as news for profit.

The issue of fake news is more serious than most people think. It would be tragic if we reach a stage when almost everything you read online is spruced up at best, an absolute lie at worst. Imagine the consequences on society if the traditional media's role as a watchdog is dumped into the recycle bin because readers end up throwing everyone in the same rubbish heap of distrust.  

If you believe the media should be free to scrutinise the use and abuse of power, do not let anyone undermine it.

So what can you do?

  • Don't melt into a puddle of distrust. Do something about it. Share responsibly. You might not realise it but you could be influencing your friends/followers within your own social network.
  • When you see a friend sharing something which is blatantly false, alert him and make it public. Don't just ignore it.
  • Always check the source of the story. Is it reputable? Is it a satirical site?
  • Share stories from news organisations you value.
  • Unsure if a story is true or false? Sites like FullFact and Snopes can often give you the answer.

What are some organisations doing?

  • In December, Facebook unveiled plans to allow users to flag false stories, which would then be assessed with the help of third party. The problem is the function is buried deep in a menu maze.
  • Germany has threatened Facebook with a fine of €500,000 for each fake story it fails to take down from its site. As politicians in Germany are worried that fake rumours concerning migrants might spur the rise of populist parties, thus stirring hate against foreigners, Facebook will soon begin to test out a fake news filtering tool.
  • BBC is to assemble a team to fact check and debunk deliberately misleading and false stories masquerading as real news.
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