Why mainstream media’s credibility must be destroyed for making fake news credible
What is fake news and what is not? In an age when it does not matter what the truth is but what people believe is the truth, the spread of fake news is inviting trouble
Almost three years have passed since the phrase ‘Fake News’ found an entry in the Collins dictionary as “false, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.
The operative part are the words “under the guise of news reporting” which are central to the definition of fake news. In recent times, however, any news which one does not like has often been described, casually and in cavalier fashion, as ‘fake news’. Sometimes even news reports which may have slipped due to a break in the channel of communication, lapses due to inexperience or due to occasional lax supervision leading to disseminating wrong information have also been painted with the same brush.
This casual approach may, however, end up destroying the entire knowledge society, which continually sifts through information and data to make corrections. Even statistical data that government agencies bring out are often questioned and are also found to be dubious and incorrect.
The public discourse does not start by blaming the Government for spreading fake news. On the other hand, the debate centres around methodological as well conceptual issues ranging from data collection to interpretation. However, if one rejects wrong Government data as ‘Fake News’ merely because one does not like the government or suspects its integrity, it would not only be unfair but also hinder the process through which knowledge is formed and enhanced.
There are many such examples of information across the world, which are contested and often proved to be wrong, sometimes after months and years of painstaking research. But they are not labelled as ‘fake news or fake data’.
Fake news is not just wrong information, false information or even sometimes misinformation. A student may give wrong information in his test paper or take the example of a pedestrian given wrong direction when she asks for one.
In Parliament, for example, there are institutional checks against misinformation slipping in. But while a student does not get marks for wrong information, there are cases of fraud against those who provide misleading or false information for private profit. The section 420 of IPC has been made infamous for criminalising anyone using false information to dupe people. But they are obviously not fake news.
Much of scientific research, while seeking to unravel how the universe works, encounters both plausible and implausible information, which eventually turn out to be wrong, misleading or mere conjectures.
As technology advances, newer discoveries are made and many old beliefs are found to have been based on incorrect and insufficient facts. The new generation of researchers keep testing information and even settled facts in the light of newer findings.
For ages counterfeit producers of electronic goods across the world have provided misleading data about the origin of the product and the standards. While these deceptions are economical with the truth, they too are clearly not fake news.
What is then fake news? First, and foremost, fake news is produced or created not merely to give false information. Many a times an honest news reporter can also give wrong information just as a student sometimes ends up giving wrong or false information. However, it is when the false information is given with a purpose that one enters into the domain of fake news.
Fake news requires wilful deception. In an insightful study, Rini Regina also argues that fake news “implies that the deception is intended for an audience larger than the immediate recipient; fake news is meant to be shared and shared again.” It has to be made ‘news at any cost’.
Journalists are in the business of creating coherent narratives from all available information. False or wrong information may often distort a story and hence most people who are in the vocation, try very hard to collect correct information. If wrong information enters the narrative and they get to know, they try and remove the incorrect information from their narrative as fast they can.
The fundamental reason for deliberately sharing fake news is to ensure wide currency. Shadowy people and organisations the world over have invested in intricate protective walls to shield the identity of such disseminators of false news and information. Such shadowy platforms are often found thousands of kilometres away from where the news actually emanates.
Fake news portals in the United States during the 2016 Presidential election were being operated from Eastern Europe or villages in Macedonia. The purpose was to create a false narrative and to deceive. The deceived community of readers or viewers were then invited to join a new community of believers in those ‘fake news’.
The one major roadblock in the dissemination of fake news however is the conventional media. Since conventional media, in print, electronically or digitally, still carry more credibility, purveyors of ‘fake news’ try and mimic them while viewers’ and readers’ trust in traditional mainstream media is sought to be destroyed. Discrediting conventional media is a pre-requisite for spreading fake news.
So, a fake news story is one that purports to describe events in the real world, typically by mimicking the conventions of traditional media reportage, yet is known by its creators to be significantly false, and is transmitted with the goals of being widely re-transmitted and deceiving a significant section of its audience.
In countries where education of large sections is deficient or of questionable quality, the process of belief-formation is rarely robust. The news in such cases serves not only as a direct source of ‘belief formation’ but also (assuming things go well) provides people with epistemic coverage or a universe with approximated true picture. Fake news deliberately tries to obstruct this process and deceives people into believing in an alternative and false picture. In doing so it seeks to enlarge its community of believers.
In a society with widespread inequality of not just wealth and income but also of access to knowledge and institutions, it is the poor and the marginal, who are both the target and the victims of fake news. One has seen this in radicalised parts of the world, where make-believe notions have become the foundation of an unshakable belief system jeopardising the wellbeing of humanity.
What is imperative, therefore, is to retain the distinction between ‘fake news media’ and other conventional media. One must remember that it is in the interests of fake news purveyors to blur the distinction between the two so as to legitimise fake news.
(The writer is Associate Professor at the Centre of Media Studies at JNU. Views are personal)