Understanding “Fake News”
by Luis Adrian Hidalgo
Understanding these nuances in communication is even more important today, in the context of the “information war,” in which systematic disinformation campaigns influence opinions. These campaigns, when conducted in online spaces, are far more disturbing, since venues like social networks allow “’atoms’ of propaganda to be directly targeted at users who are more likely to accept and share a particular message.
THE PROLIFERATION of “fake news” is one of the most problematic issues both responsible media and their publics have had to contend with. A buzzword popularized by US President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” previously used referred to false content shared on digital platforms. By 2017, however, accusations that the press has been spreading false information were being used by politicians around the world as a weapon to threaten and insult journalists and media organizations, according to First Draft, a nonprofit coalition that addresses challenges to trust and truth in the digital age.
Philippine politicians are no exception. Over the past two years, the independent Philippine press has been subjected not only to harsh criticisms but also to profanities and insults from government officials, including President Rodrigo Duterte himself. Mr. Duterte has accused critical practitioners and media organizations of spreading “fake news,” of which government media themselves have a number of times been found to be guilty. His more rabid supporters have also contributed to further muddling public discourse by threatening journalists and government critics, as well as by spreading fraudulent information themselves through social media.
As a consequence, the epidemic of misinformation and disinformation has duped the non-media literate, including government officials, into unwitting purveyors of “fake news” through both old and new media.
Some legislators thought the spread of “fake news” to be such a problem that they sought to curb it through legislation. Senator Joel Villanueva introduced Senate Bill 1492 in June 2017 in the upper house, while Congressman Luis Raymund Villafuerte sponsored House Bill 6022 four months later.
In October 2017, the Senate conducted an inquiry into the matter supposedly to determine what “fake news” is, but as CMFR noted then, the hearing “contributed little to the public’s understanding of the term and its meaning” as the nearly six-hour affair “did not give experts, lawyers and journalists time to clarify critical points: the constitutionality or wisdom of legislation as a way of checking fake news; the difference between blogging and journalism; the obligation of those who work in a news organization; or the responsibilities of those paid from public funds as communication persons.” (See: “Senate Hearing on “Fake News:” Getting Back at Trolls and Other Trivia”)
The Senate did not have to look far for enlightenment on these issues. CMFR in 2016 developed guidelines in identifying false information and ascertaining content reliability. (See: “Knowing Your Source: Think Before You Click”) The guidelines have since been used in Fakeblok, a Google Chrome browser plug-in that flags fake information when it appears in the user’s social media newsfeed. Through Fakeblok’s website, users can also report sites of doubtful provenance which an independent team of journalists would then review. Once the reported sites are proven to be disseminating false information, the sites are added to the plug-in’s database and are blocked the next time they appear as sources in the newsfeed. Launched in June 2017, Fakeblok is a collaboration between CMFR and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
Fact-checking has also been strengthened by a number of media organizations, of which the most prominent initiatives were launched by VERA Files and Rappler. Both are signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) of Poynter Institute, a forum for fact-checkers worldwide which supports fact-checking initiatives by promoting best practice. The IFCN was launched in September 2015 and currently has 46 verified signatories across the globe.
“VERA Files Fact Check” monitors false claims, misleading statements and flip-flops by public officials (“What you want to know about ‘VERA FILES FACT CHECK’”), while a similar section called “THIS WEEK IN FAKE NEWS” has a collection of fact-checks for quick public consumption.
Rappler has three fact-checking categories under Newsbreak, its investigative arm. Fact Check “pulls together information from varying sources” to verify claims and provide deeper understanding of the issues being fact-checked. Fast Facts, on the other hand, is primarily used ‘to clear up historical fact. Its standalone section Rappler IQ, produces explainers and is used to “make sense of facts, figures and information.” (“Rappler now a member of the International Fact-Checking Network ”)
Civil society groups and organizations have held seminars to contribute to the larger discourse on the issue. The Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation (NCAF), for instance, held in July 2017, a seminar-workshop on leadership and new media, a component of which looked into the promotion of responsible use of social media and combating the spread of fake news.
Demystifying the Concept
Does “fake news” consist solely of fraudulent details in a report or statement, or is it more than that?
Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, argues that it involves the “entire information ecosystem,” not just news. (“Fake news. It’s complicated”) This includes different types of misinformation (inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation (deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false) — the complexity of which the term “fake” cannot sufficiently describe. Wardle’s approach opens a more holistic view of the issue, which could make understanding the concept of “fake news” easier to comprehend, and help in finding a suitable replacement for the term.
To understand the current information ecosystem, Wardle divides it into three elements: types of content created and shared; the motivation behind it; and the ways through which the content is disseminated. Knowledge of these interconnected components can go a long way in the fight against false information as these enable one to identify distinct patterns that otherwise go unnoticed by the uninitiated.
Wardle also provided a taxonomy of what can fall under fake news. This includes satire or parody; misleading content; imposter content; fabricated content; false connections; false context; and manipulated content. Each of the seven problematic content mentioned is different but all share a common characteristic: the intent to deceive.
Understanding these nuances in communication is even more important today, in the context of the “information war,” in which systematic disinformation campaigns influence opinions. These campaigns, when conducted in online spaces, are far more disturbing, since venues like social networks allow “‘atoms’ of propaganda to be directly targeted at users who are more likely to accept and share a particular message.”
As noted by First Draft, recent developments and studies on the issue demand a shift from the term “fake news” to more specific ones such as “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and “malinformation” or the sharing of information to cause harm — terms grouped under the umbrella term “information disorder.” Not totally abandoned, the term “fake news” then would serve as an acknowledgement of the controversy, First Draft said.
The “fake news” problem clearly can’t be solved by one sector alone. It requires the concerted effort of the media and the public. Until an effective solution is found, everyone should be critical of information from whatever source and be extra careful in sharing it.
As for the challenge confronting journalists, it does serve as a wake-up call. Now more than at any other time, journalists need to uphold their core values and show by the quality of their work, the accuracy of their facts and the context of their reports how important it is to provide free and ample space for their practice.