While US President Dold Trump has set the cat among pigeons with his ‘fake news’ onslaught against mainstream media, the latter while counterattacking has trained guns on social media. Ever since he beat pollsters’ projections to storm the White House, Trump has been taking pot shots at major media houses for their numerous reports about his indiscretions, peccadilloes and so-called divisive agenda. Trump has announced his fake news ‘awards’, the top prize going to The New York Times for an article by Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman about the negative fallout of Trump’s win. Among Trump’s Top 10 list are other leading media houses like ABC, CNN, Washington Post and Newsweek. “2017 was a year of unrelenting bias, unfair news coverage and even downright fake news. Studies have shown that over 90 percent of media’s coverage of President Trump is negative,” griped Trump’s Republican Party in its website listing the ‘award winners’. Not surprisingly, several authoritarian leaders and regimes across the world have embraced Trump’s term, ranging from Bashr Assad of Syria to Chi’s Communist government — by crying ‘fake news’ to denounce any form of critical or adverse media coverage. The New York Times has now hit right back, calling Trump’s definition of fake news as “fundamentally fake”. The newspaper’s maging editor Joseph Kahn has said that President Trump is using the all-purpose term to smear those “holding the powerful to account”, while noting his proclivity to take to social media to mount his attacks. Kahn was recently participating in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, with the assembled media experts brainstorming over how to protect democracy in the ‘Post Truth’ world. Warning that the digital world and fake news pose a major threat to global democracy, the panel noted that thanks to ‘hacking, leaking and disputing the facts’, it has never been easier to distort the truth. Calling on social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to root out fake news from their platforms, the panel statement read: “Social media in particular has changed the way we consume and share news and information, and accelerated the spread of iccurate and misleading content”. It remains to be seen how the social media platforms ensure accuracy and quality of the content they host. There is much talk over artificial intelligence (AI) based software capable of detecting fake news, but it is too early to vouch for their reliability. Whatever the misgivings, social media is the happening place where more and more people are pouring out their thoughts, sharing their experiences, even as they shame, troll and ‘unfriend’ others with contrary opinions.
For long, jourlists saw their role as that of trained ‘gatekeepers’ — screening the vast ocean of information, selecting those they deemed to be correct and useful for the public (particularly the opinion builders), and processing the news with due alytical rigor. But the advent of social media has posed an identity problem for those in the jourlistic profession. Now everyone with a smartphone is a news consumer as well as producer; everyone on social media has an opinion, though one wonders how many actually crosscheck the veracity of the information they set store by. Even a section of jourlists is using social media as a tool to elicit responses, promote their work and build up a following. So who will be the saviour in a digital world where fake news goes viral so fast it is hard to stop? According to Pope Francis, it is jourlism “that seeks the truth”, and education that can eble people “to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclitions”. Likening fake news to “the crafty serpent” that lied to Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Pope sees in it a sign of “intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.” In his annual statement released recently ahead of World Communication Day, Pope Francis said: “The economic and manipulative aims that feed misinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy”. According to him, the difficulty in unmasking fake news lies with the unwillingness of people to listen to differing perspectives and opinions, which could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue. Former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who was in charge of digital agenda, has pointed out that a regulatory regime cannot elimite fake news for the simple reason that regulation in most cases “is based on the past while there will be new possibilities to present fake news in the future”. Instead, she has called for appropriate education from school level, which teaches people “not to accept everything”. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a standardised global competence test to compare education systems of various countries, which includes a section that tests whether a student can spot fake news or data presented in misleading way, whether they can distinguish between facts, opinions and propaganda. Interestingly, while countries like Australia, Cada and Scotland have opted to take the test, Dold Trump-led USA along with the likes of England (not UK), Germany and France chose to stay out. The war against fake news is anything but united.