“But the freewheeling spirit and cover of anonymity offered by the social media allow even the most outrageous assaults on reason to be passed off as harmless commentaries” (Staying Engaged with Real News, The Straits Times Editorial).
Few will disagree with the need for social media sites and search engines to stem the spread of misinformation and disinformation, especially by targeting their online sources of revenue. The ability of individuals – by nudging themselves out of online “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” – to discern between what is real and what is not, will matter even more in the future, as content consumption on the Internet increases. In this vein, nonetheless, while it is important to address the allure or the pull factors of these fake news sites, this discourse about the roles and responsibilities of the media in general should also include an evaluation of the mainstream media and its push factors.
There are at least three ways through which the mainstream media should feature in this discourse. First, beyond the reliance on platforms such as Facebook and Google “to weed out those purveying false news for various ends” (ST, Nov. 25), the mainstream media can actively fact-check and take bogus sites to task. And if it is accepted that most content consumers are increasingly cognisant of fabricated news and information, then the challenge is to build a community of readers and users who not only offer corrections, but who also work to propagate these clarifications and to debunk myths.
The second related point is about reach and dissemination. A few weeks ago, the “New Yorker” compared the number of Facebook shares of the fake statement that Pope Francis had endorsed President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy, to the clarification piece by fact-checking website Snopes. The former garnered almost a million shares, whereas the latter had just under 50,000. What follows this observation should be the realisation that even as the reach of fake news sites and stories is progressively circumvented, mainstream media outlets – with their readers – must boost their own reach.
And finally, as a consequence of three developments – the intense competition for eyeballs and revenue, the convenience and proliferation of self-publishing on the Internet, and hopefully the growing significance of media literacy too – news and broadcasting outlets should therefore expect more critical and rigorous evaluation of their work. Subscribers and viewers turn away from these platforms, when gain little of value. And the emphasis on value creation and quality, good journalism, in other words, remains an important bulwark against the sites peddling misinformation and disinformation.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.