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Taming the fake news machine

  • Published at 05:28 pm August 28th, 2018
Fake news
It’s not hard to detect fake news BIGSTOCK

The problem with social media trying to replace traditional media is a lack of editorial scrutiny

Like it or not, we live in the age of the social internet. All we see, hear, and do can be made public goods for online consumption, if not by us, then by those around us. We post what we are eating, thinking, dreaming, reading, feeling, and even where we are at the moment for everyone else to see.

Social media is now the most engaging platform for people who want their views to be a public good, but don’t want to go through the editorial process to do so. A chicken-and-egg debate could be had on whether this social media craze brought about the mistrust in mainstream media or if the failure of the mainstream media to incorporate new media has led to the mistrust, but there certainly seems to be a correlation.

Nonetheless, we now stand at an age where news often breaks on the social internet and then reaches the established media as they must cross check to avoid legal liabilities, and doing so requires time and effort. The social media maniac does not need to go through all of these hoops, she can simply share whatever she thinks may be the truth, and thus indulge in the propagation of fake news.

That is when the views posted on social media become the breaking news and the mainstream media only gets to react on a reaction, thus furthering the cycle of passing views as news. Which begs the question: Who should be blamed (or prosecuted) for fake news?

This is tough, especially in terms of news snippets which originate through social media posts rather than a website. Maybe the original poster had some shred of reality in their tweet, but by the time it reaches the end user it becomes distorted to a dangerous lie that may cause violence and instability. While a lot of times users willingly do this, many a time this happens without intent as social media is designed to feed upon what is polarizing and controversial rather than what is unifying and normal.

Social media was not designed for the task it has taken up today. It was designed for photos of puppies and family events. However, today, it has become much more than that. It is a platform for citizen journalism, blogging/vlogging, entrepreneurship, education, motivational speaking, and many other things. But above all, at least from my perspective, politicking on social media seems to be the most problematic wing of these corollary usages.

Why is politicking on social media so widely popular? Possibly because it has no editorial scrutiny. Why is politicking on social media so dangerous? Again, possibly because it has no editorial scrutiny.

Anyone with any level of skill and knowledge would engage in opining about the political ongoings on social media, and at times when traditional institutions (eg the press and the three branches of government) fail, they would take up their roles as well. We have seen this phenomenon with hundreds of people sharing false news during and after the Jigatola attacks and we have seen the social media trials of many alleged rapists and other criminals.

As all the traditional institutions stand on flimsy ground in Bangladesh right now, social media is fast to take on the role of any institution that it perceives as failing. This is a very bad news, because platforms such as Facebook have no editorial scrutiny and no checks-and-balances. They are based entirely on majoritarianism, built around controversies and polarizations. Even the sentence written above alone should alert us of an unknown danger -- a danger that we do not know how to avert.

Spread of rumours in Bangladesh or the epidemic of fake news in the US cannot be fully stopped by turning towards censorship, and thus making the new media mimic the old media platforms which have already failed to represent, because newer platforms for chatter always emerge and thus gain more notoriety.

And even if the current platforms of new media are censored or altered, a route that Facebook is now taking, the false news and the rumours will find a new language through satire and memes and thereby, the fight against fake news would be undone.

Mass arrests and censorship are not a good answer to the fake news crisis in the long term. We must work towards a new institutional design that can properly address the grievances of the people without falling prey to majoritarianism, populism, and illiberalism.

Also, the current institutions, as outlined above, need to be nimble enough so that there are no vacuums in the society that new unedited media has to fill. The old institutions are already tested by time and are somewhat trustworthy under the existing checks and balances.

Either these old institutions need to be renewed, or a new institution must be erected. Otherwise, the great threat that the unedited social media possesses would run amuck and raise havoc whenever the old guard fails.

Anupam Debashis Roy is Editor of Muktiforum.