Co-authored with Niranjan R
Fake news is created or published to mislead or with the intention to damage an organisation or individual with the motive of financial or political gains or both. The basic nature of this news is its sensational cover, probably on current or key issues which attract readership and revenue. Various studies on fake news characterise it as news satire, fabrication, manipulation, news parody, advertising and propaganda that indeed appropriates the look and feel of real news. This is generally linked to networks on fake sites. News distribution ownership has witnessed a shift from traditional content creators to digital distributors and with the advent of digital technology, the spread of online falsehood could go viral in seconds.
The extent of the effect of fake news on individuals may be by cognitive bias. The best example is that confirmation bias may lead individuals to seek out news that confirms their beliefs and disseminate it without verifying its accuracy. The broad implications of fake news may be on political, social, economic and even national security.
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The political implications may include inter alia undermining of public institutions and their credibility, especially during election times wherein citizens may be misguided through online news channels and that affects citizens’ choice of political representation. The social implication could be in the form of destabilizing society through unnecessary fear, distrust among public, thereby creating conflict among various communities/religions. This is achieved through the spread of fake videos and photographs that may affect religious sentiments or otherwise.
The economic implications could be that of affecting the profitability of a credible private institution, impacting its stock value at least for a short period. The national security implication may be destabilizing the economy creating internal conflicts, and inculcating hatred of a jurisdiction among the international community. This may result in situations of international conflicts among jurisdictions. The intensity of the implications have forced various jurisdictions to wage war against fake news.
International best practices
While jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom have established security units to counter fake news, other countries like the Philippines have introduced a bill to penalise public officials who publish fake news. Malaysia has passed legislation against fake news with punishments of high intensity and heavy fines. Germany brought out a social media bill which specifically targets illegal content on websites and social media platforms. While France and several other European economies are at various stages of bringing out comprehensive legislation, several developing countries have brought out circulars and guidelines to prevent the spread of fake news that have been criticized by vested interest groups. The challenging aspect is that the public may conceive it as something which affects the freedom of the press and thus the regulations initiated against media platforms by jurisdictions are indeed questioned at least in the short run on various forums.
What could be done?
With the realisation that there is no quick, permanent fix to various kinds of fake news, the broad solutions or suggestions for tackling the same revolve around two points. One, focussing on different players such as content creators, distributors and consumers and two, direct and indirect means of regulations through technological design, law, social norms etc.
Content consumers need essential awareness/education on distinguishing credible sources of news, information dissemination in today’s world, identification and questioning of unverified details doubling down on supporting facts for a particular news story. Content creators and distributors need adherence to professional norms for new technologies of distribution which leads to the dissemination of trustworthy and standard news.
The professional norms may include inter alia multiple factual checks on a proposed news story, quoting relevant sources, acknowledging and at the same time publicizing corrections if any on news stories etc. Editors could play vital roles in this regard. Content distributors may strictly promote norms of professional news gathering with a key role more of a watchdog flagging content that is inaccurate.
An accreditation system for content creators and content distributors may need to be designed in such a way that it strengthens and familiarises existing norms as also best practices across online and other platforms and at the same time not silence new innovative and sincere platforms. The digital platforms need to be monitored with advanced technology designs which promote credible content and foster critical analysis.
Online platforms should be designed in such a way that users read the content before sharing it and at the same time content intermediaries must be transparent on reasons for the promotion of certain news stories. Market incentives too need a redesign with equal weightage for short-form, national news via-a-vis local as also deeply researched journalism.
In a few jurisdictions, boycotts by digitally organised consumers on certain news platforms had prompted advertising agencies to tie up only with credible news agencies which is a positive development. This may result in whitelisting of reliable content sites, ultimately leading to healthy news platforms.
To tackle fake news, the Government’s role may essentially include encouraging professional and independent journalism, making online platforms liable for misinformation, and avoid censoring content as also crackdowns on news media’s ability to cover the news. The news industry in a form of a self-regulatory organisation should promote professional journalism and call out fake news and disinformation without legitimising them.
It is also high time that technology firms invest in technology that finds fake news and identify the same through crowdsourcing and algorithms. Thus, the suggestions above could be materialized through legislation and incentives that promote best practices that require the development of legal tools in collaboration with technology firms, subject experts and legislators.
(The authors – Surjith Karthikeyan is a civil servant at the Indian Ministry of Finance and Niranjan R is a researcher. Views are personal and not necessarily that of financialexpress.com.)