On October 29, 2017, Israeli parliamentarian Nachman Shai received a barrage of calls and messages from friends and colleagues. A rumor that he had died of cardiac arrest had spread through the WhatsApp digital messenger network. Shai quickly sent a picture of himself to reassure people that he was in fact still alive, twitted a rebuttal and called his wife. The spread of this story relied entirely on social media and our trigger-happy tendency to hit the “share” button. While it can be considered a relatively minor incident that was easily resolved, other occurrences are less “benign.” Fake news has very real effects on our lives.
As we have seen in recent years, fake news poses a real threat for democracies around the world. Information communicated online can “go viral” very quickly and reach an enormous number of people around the world within mere hours. In this atmosphere of instant communication, disinformation can cause a lot of harm before anyone can check its accuracy. Perhaps one of the most familiar examples is the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in which a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency is said to have actively spread disinformation to interfere with the U.S. elections. This was a catalyst for increased attention to the potential harm of fake news.
An Old-New Story
While “fake news” seems to have become ever-present over the last couple of years, it is not a new phenomenon [see Yardenna Alexandre’s article “Fake News in the Ancient World” in this issue]. It refers to both misinformation and disinformation, which are not synonymous terms. Misinformation, the older term, is defined according to Merriam Webster dictionary, as “incorrect or misleading information.” It dates back to the 1580s and implies that the act of spreading false information could have been unintentional. Disinformation is a newer term. Originating in the 1950’s, it means the intentional spreading of false information in order to deceive. Disinformation is what most people mean when they refer to “fake news,” which can appear in the form of propaganda, “yellow” press stories and gossip. In some cases, “doctored” information is intentionally spread.
With the advent of social media platforms, broadcasting and publishing underwent a process of “democratization” but in some respects have also become a new “Wild West;” a new frontier, where traditional laws and social norms are still struggling to keep up. We can no longer blindly trust what we read. The author might not be committed to the same standard of reliability as news editors of old, or might simply be a troll, actively working to spread disinformation.
A New Sheriff
The extent of this problem has not gone unnoticed by authorities and various steps have already been taken to address it. For example, in 2018 the European Union (EU) issued the “Action Plan against Disinformation.” In this report they state:
Our open democratic societies depend on the ability of citizens to access a variety of verifiable information so that they can form a view on different political issues… these democratic processes are increasingly challenged by deliberate, large-scale, and systematic spreading of disinformation .
The report recognizes disinformation as a new type of warfare and suggests an elaborate plan of collaboration to recognize and counteract disinformation online. Their strategic plan relies on three cooperating forces: government, private sector companies, and the general public.
Governments must take an active role in detecting, analyzing and counteracting the spread of disinformation. Legislation is paramount, as are active institutional prevention and broad public education. However, government action can potentially violate our civil rights. For example, Singapore has recently passed a law outlawing the spread of fake news, but concerns have already been raised that this new law’s broad definition of “fake news” may cause serious damage to free speech.
Private Sector Companies
Online social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, are called on by the EU to do their part in monitoring, addressing and preventing the spread of disinformation, which is done predominantly through their online platforms. The report reiterates these companies’ official commitment to the EU’s “Code of Practice,” which was signed in September 2018. According to this Code, “the industry is committed to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetization of purveyors of disinformation.”
Nonetheless, recent criticism by the EU has pointed out that despite this commitment and the progress that has been made already, social media platforms still need to do much more to provide adequate protection from disinformation.
The General Public
The democratic process has always relied on public awareness and participation to maintain its existence. In democratic societies citizens are called upon and given the right to participate in the political process by voting. As such, citizens should be well-informed in order to make well-advised decisions when voting.
The same must apply to Internet use. With the democratization of information through the web, people must assume the same civic responsibility for their use of the Internet and social media. It would not be wise for us, average Internet users, to simply sit back and wait for the authorities and the social media companies to “fix” this problem. To stem the tide of online disinformation, we must exercise caution as we assume the responsibilities of fact-checkers.
Accordingly, the third force designated in the EU report is the general public. The report promotes active measures to educate the public as well as to support independent fact-checkers and investigative journalism. The importance of this third pillar cannot be underestimated as demonstrated by recent events, as in India, where an assault of fake news occurred during its recent elections. In this case, much of disinformation was spread through WhatsApp groups which unlike Facebook and Twitter, is a private messaging service. The company maintains that it cannot and will not control or monitor private messages. And not without good cause: the right to privacy is an essential civil right. However, with this privacy comes responsibility: WhatsApp requires personal involvement and responsibility on the part of its users to stop fake news.
Even with the best intentions and under ideal circumstance, it is unlikely that disinformation will be completely stopped. Disinformation is, after all, nothing new and will continue to exist in some form or another. However, the toxic form it has recently taken does call for immediate action.
Governments and social media companies should work towards detection and prevention. They have at their disposal tools and capabilities that the average Internet user does not. But large-scale legislation and prevention can only go so far in preventing disinformation. Further, over-zealous legislation and interference is also a threat to democracy, freedom of speech and privacy.
The strength of democracy and our own personal commitment to truth and fairness will be tested by this growing threat. The best way to maintain our most essential freedoms depends on us being active citizens of the world.
Doing our Part
In an article for factcheck.org, “How to Spot Fake News,” Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson provide these pointers when evaluating information on the Internet:
- Is the source of the information reliable?
- Don’t rely on titles, especially provocative ones.
- Is the author credited?
- Check sources cited. Are they real? Are they relevant?
- Check the publication date. Old stories can be rehashed in potentially misleading ways. What seemed true then, might not be true any longer.
- Make sure that the content isn’t satire!
- Make sure that your biases don’t prevent you from spotting a fake story. We may want to believe it because it fits our world view, but that doesn’t make it real.
- For those of us who just don’t have the time to do extensive research on every news article, when in doubt, confirm veracity with known fact-checking sources (factcheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes for example).
See the FlackCheck channel on YouTube for an animated video version of the article.
Safe – and responsible – surfing!
 Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel, press release, 26 September 2018.