Friday, 24 February 2017

Calling Out the Online Fakes

As an information free marketeer, I am instinctively not as panicked about what is currently being described as “fake news/information” in the public sphere as many of my colleagues in the free expression and press freedom communities, because I think there are paths to addressing some of its worst effects.

It is understandably concerning to bona fide professional journalists that one of the core functions of the fake news phenomenon is the deliberate undermining of otherwise legitimate sources of news and information in order to command political or corporate market space.

For instance, one of the paths to the sources of this category of public information would be an easily recognisable and explicit campaign to diminish the value of old or legacy media, and their operatives, in the eyes of the consumers of news and information. This includes personal smear campaigns against journalists, among other strategies.

Keep your eyes on the people clearly engaged in achieving this objective, and not far away you would more likely than not find a “new” or emerging outlet offering the “real” news, presumably unfiltered by political or corporate interests. If you barely scratch the surface of these “alternative” sources of opinion, news and analysis you recognise the raw backbone of campaigns conceived to prop up the agendas of sectional interests.

These activities also ride on the backs of legitimate programmes to widen access to public information, protect informal and unauthorised sources of such information and provide platforms for the expression of people and interests otherwise marginalised by traditionally skewed, oligarchic mass media environments.

Exponents employ the techniques of traditional news coverage to offer deliberately misleading information by integrating opinion with fact and verifiable data with false statistics.

Investments in such operations span a variety of business models though, more often than not, they tend to be lacking in easily recognisable operational viability and must be sustained by non-core sources of revenue. Ask then the question. Who is paying for this?

For the consumer, there are some other simple, basic questions to ask. Who are the proprietors of the enterprises offering not only “alternative” perspectives but “alternative” facts and information?

In most instances, nowadays, we are speaking of shady online operations. Traditional “mainstream” media don’t usually have such a challenge. Some are publicly-listed and have boards of directors whose members are well-known to everyone. In other instances, there are private companies whose owners are known and whose business records are, by statute, capable of being assessed.

Legacy media operations also have editorial hierarchies, small and large, and liabilities for professional and other misconduct are clearly established. There are teams of journalists who are known to everyone and routinely operate under guidelines that have implications for their continued employment.

Newer, credible online-only operations offer a similarly transparent corporate profile and we usually have a clear idea of ownership and professional responsibility.

The “fake news” strategists are also usually easily found behind the dissemination of salacious content to bolster other assertions. In Jamaica, where I am currently, some of the content being circulated via WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms about the systematic harvesting of human organs for international trade is known to be the same material being distributed among T&T audiences.

The ensuing heightening of public concern about this new form of criminal behaviour fits easily into the frame of politically-motivated actions to establish the failure of politicians in power to conquer the undeniable plague of criminal violence.

Human trafficking as an area of legitimate and serious regional concern is also gaining prominence as a similar source of material for the strategists involved in the “fake news” business.

In Jamaica, where some of the features of cyber-crime legislation being considered in T&T are already in place, the difficulty with policing such provisions has come to the fore well ahead of justifiable concerns about their constitutionality. It is my view, by the way, that imposing laws that criminalise an expanded variety of public expression, in this case online content, is a blatant contravention of the guarantee of free expression.

Additionally, only last weekend, Jamaican police spokesperson, Supt Stephanie Lindsay, bemoaned the fact that having a law against online information leading to “annoyance, distress or anxiety” was “overwhelming the police services” by causing a diversion of resources that can be otherwise employed.

The “fake news” phenomenon, fuelled by voyeuristic online audiences and functional media illiteracy is of understandable concern to legislators but their official interventions should not be solely a response to the political damage such material is capable of inflicting.

This situation should instead provide the impetus behind more stringent application of existing civil and criminal law, the validating and strengthening of legitimate new and old media operations and a concerted programme to promote higher levels of media literacy.

At a workshop I attended on the subject in Jakarta last year there was insertion of concern that media literacy could not be reasonably advocated in an environment in which “old-fashioned” illiteracy prevailed. But media literacy is a huge part of the solution to the bigger issues.

For the moment, discerning consumers of public news and information can begin by asking the questions I have proposed in order to determine the bona fides of their sources on information.

Enemies of the free press are not all proponents of the new “alternative” forms but are wont to favour the demise of legacy media, in the process affirming their complicity in undermining one of the more important pillars of the democratic process.

All of this places an additional onus on trusted sources of news to try to always get it right and to set higher standards for professional performance. This is not always easy to achieve but its pursuit is vitally important, especially under current circumstances.

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