Deciphering a Culture of Misinformation

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[Written by Beatrice Efimov]

[Image Credit: BBC News]

The distinct lines between fact and fiction are increasingly difficult to discern, as we live in a political climate where finding the truth of events is challenging due to the sheer range of communicative mediums we are presented with. It is increasingly difficult to decipher fact from fiction, with a culture of misinformation challenging our ability to comprehend global affairs and issues outside of our own environment. The vast rise in the number of internet news outlets, combined with an increasing number of users, has resulted in a conflict between corporate interests and reporting as factually as possible.

Despite appearing to be a new issue; ‘fake news’, or dis/misinformation, has always been present in the media. Notably, John Pulitzer, whose eponymous Pulitzer Prize is presently used as a metric for good journalism, owned ‘The New York World’, which was a paper that published sensationalist stories that very much blurred the boundary between fact and fiction. The paper’s coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898 was dominated by sensationalist headlines and unsubstantiated claims regarding the situation in Cuba. Notably, the paper accused the Spanish of either bombing or launching a torpedo at the American battleship ‘Maine’ in 1898, when in fact, the explosion had been caused by an explosion in the harbour. This was not an isolated case; the dissemination of misinformation has been present long throughout history, from antiquity to modernity.

Despite ‘fake news’ being a persistent thread since the incarnation of print, it has seemingly reached unprecedented levels. This can partly be explained through the shift in media consumption, from legacy platforms to non-traditional outlets that utilize social media. Traditional media outlets are often bound by a code of ethics and standards, which can in part be attributed to the recommendations of the Commission of Freedom of the Press (1947). The Commission’s goal was to look at the function of the media in a democracy; concluding that mass media does have a social and moral responsibility to society. Moreover, journalists are also bound by a code of ethics; most notably, one can reasonably expect their work to be: truthful, accurate, and publicly accountable. Conversely, social media, non-traditional news outlets, and the rise in citizen journalism has posed a significant challenge to the established code of ethics and standards held in the media, which quite frankly has resulted in a free for all.

The manipulation, distortion, and subversion of the truth has become a tactic used to not only misinform the public, but coerce sections of the population into states of delirium. Depressingly, the motivations attributed to the authors of these fictitious stories have been categorised by financial gain, ideology or simply entertainment. The 2018 Brazilian election campaign was dominated by fake news, primarily against the left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad. Haddad was accused of giving day-care centres ‘mamaderias eroticas’ or erotic baby bottles with penis-shaped teats, and providing schools with ‘gay kits’ in an attempt to tackle homophobia at schools.  This seemingly obvious lie gained significant amounts of traction throughout the campaign; resulting in further support for the right- wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

Haddad’s camp reciprocated by claiming that Bolsonaro was going to raise taxation on the poorest, when on the contrary he stated he would abolish it (for those who earned a certain amount less than the minimum wage). They also claimed that the knife attack that Bolsonaro sustained in September was merely a PR stunt to boost his popularity.  It would not be legitimate to equivocate the actions of both sides. An electoral case has been opened against Bolsonaro and the illicit methods he employed throughout his campaign, specifically financial irregularities, which underwrote the spread of dis/misinformation about the leftist candidate.

Interestingly, most of the disinformation was spread via WhatsApp – an encrypted messaging service owned by Facebook – an application that has been increasingly exploited and misused. Similarly, in India heightened levels of mob violence against innocent people stem from the widespread sharing of fake news via the messaging service. The dissemination of fake news on WhatsApp is not limited to political discourse, it has penetrated all topics of discourse, notably, the spreading of misinformation about health.

It must be noted that in both Brazil and India, WhatsApp has taken new measures to tackle the spread of fake news. WhatsApp has limited the number of groups a message can be sent to at one time, deactivated peoples accounts, and in Brazil a campaign was launched with advice on how to spot fake news. However, these measures are just not satisfying enough, and have only been implemented due to the severity and extremity of the cases. With 1.5 billion WhatsApp users worldwide and being the most popular messaging service in 2018, the company very seriously needs to re-evaluate its role; more specifically its ethical role, and adjust its actions accordingly.

There is a strong case for creating and implementing a rigorous code of ethics, to which WhatsApp would be bound and held accountable to. Due to the nature of the messaging service, it does seem difficult to see how this would work in practice without infringing on WhatsApp’s customer’s rights. However, WhatsApp was created as a messaging service—not a news platform—therefore, it is seemingly appropriate that with the change in the use of the platform, there should be an attempt to better understand what policies will effectively quell the misuse of it. With it parent company—Facebook—increasingly being held in the spotlight for its role in facilitating electoral fraud and the spread of misinformation, the effectiveness of this suggestion wavers without effective governmental response.  

Combining a code of ethics with mass educational funding would create a balance of responsibility between the company and the consumer, facilitating a reduction in the spread of fake news. Mass educational funding is crucial in establishing a critically engaged society that has sufficient tools and means when attempting to decipher the verity of information. The BBC in 2018 launched a ‘Beyond Fake News’ project worldwide; part of the project entailed holding media literacy workshops, teaching people how to spot fake news. Media literacy workshops should be implemented on a wider scale and incorporated into educational programmes. If we seriously wish to combat this culture of misinformation, it is imperative that national governments, tech companies, and the media seriously invest funding into educating the population and providing them with sufficient skills to use when engaging with the news.

It is time for each part of the seemingly unwieldy chain that facilitates the spread of misinformation to take action and accept responsibility for the role they play in it. The current lack of a serious code of ethics in non-traditional news outlets provides fertile ground for not only the dissemination of fake news, but an outright battle with the truth. Nonetheless, there is some hope in limiting the harmful effects of fake news—but it requires immediate action. It is essential that companies re-evaluate their newly found positions in the realm of the media and accept the responsibility that comes with it, updating their codes of ethics as well as investing in workshops and schemes to create a more conscious audience. Without these initiatives, it seems fiction will continue to reign over us, further complicating and blurring the lines between the reality on the ground and the narratives that have been created for individual’s agendas.

[Image Description: A balloon shaped like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro being carried by a crowd, with a green and yellow Brazilian flag attached to the balloon. In the background there is a cityscape with two tall light-grey buildings in the centre.]


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