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Combating fake news: an impossible feat?

The recent explosion of fake news around the world has serious real life consequences in the political sphere. How will Latin America approach this in the light of upcoming elections? Español

Los Angeles International Airport, Source: Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved. We are currently immersed in an era of informational misrepresentation. Fake news (#Fakenews), as it has been referred to, has become a type of political tactic used to manipulate public opinion that has been highly criticised but has also proven highly effective.

In Latin America, the cases reported have been numerous: in Argentina the web page Chequeado is collecting information regarding recent incidents, and a similar project is underway in Colombia called ColombiaCheck. 

This issue is distressing for countries of the region considering many will experience two years of intense electoral campaigning. In 2018 alone there are 14 confirmed electoral processes, and a similar quantity is expected for the year 2019.

This issue is distressing for countries of the region considering many will experience two years of intense electoral campaigning.

These processes will be carried out in a context of significant political polarisation that can easily turn into a breeding ground for manipulation of information for political purposes.

However, as many Latin American organisations have already denounced in an open letter, fake news is not a recent phenomenon, but a strategy of media monopolies against independent and community based forms of media.

The desire to control information and to construct “the truth” has always existed, the difference is that now the network of digital technologies enables the fabrication of information and its publication on the net. It is for these reasons that it is important to deal with not just the perspectives of fake news but also to approach disinformation, manipulation, and the concentration of the media in few hands.

Manipulation of information in the digital age

The media has always been criticised for its monopolistic tendencies. Then things appeared to change and the great innovation that led to the infrastructure of the internet facilitated a type of distributed communication that Manuel Castells called mass self-communication.

Mass self-communication is basically the possibility that users can communicate with each other directly, without intermediaries or peer-to-peer, presenting an opportunity to break through the media monopolies.

All of a sudden, the same infrastructure that enabled the #ArabSpring or #OccupyWallStreet in fact represented the interests that they previously fought against.

However, this type of idealisation was called into question when a series of events – including the electoral campaign of current United States president Donald Trump – demonstrated the great capacity for the instrumentalisation of digital platforms on a mass scale.

All of a sudden, the same infrastructure that enabled the #ArabSpring or #OccupyWallStreet in fact represented the interests that they previously fought against, and facilitated the accumulation of power. 

The concept that was breaking down this idea of mass self-communication was a notion still considered rather suspicious: post-truth. This is understood as the ability to fabricate truths and to position them in such a way that they provoke certain feelings, sensations or reactions.

In other words, people tend to believe in what reinforces pre-existing values within their own identity system, which can involve the likes of nationalism, racism, or even class outrage.

 

Is increased state involvement/control the solution? 

One of the biggest threats to the circulation of fake news is heightened state regulation and control of information and currently, France and Brazil are in the process of creating such frameworks.

Brazil has put in place a commission in light of the 2018 presidential elections in order to generate solutions to and block webpages containing fake news.

The proposal has generated a range of reactions over the possibility that the commission will pave the way for censorship of both independent and traditional media outlets.

This commission will function in accordance with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and will be composed of state entities including the army, the National Intelligence Agency, and some NGOs.

However, the proposal has generated a range of reactions over the possibility that the commission will pave the way for censorship of both independent and traditional media outlets.

French president Emmanuel Macron has announced a law against fake news which will encourage an increase in transparency in relation to digital media and their sources of finance (including information about advertising money they may receive). Additionally, it will allow the authorities during election periods to eliminate or block content they deem to be ‘false news’.

However, these regulatory strategies do not seem to get to the real root of the problem but rather they justify a significant increase in state control over the media, above all independent outlets, and their very citizens that consume them.

Technological “solutionism”

An alternative to this would be to use technology to combat fake news, although at times it is not entirely effective. 

Facebook has introduced two specific tools: the first is called “disputed flags”, which tags news articles which appear to be false with a red icon, a type of warning sign. Notwithstanding, the tool was reported to be inefficient in that it required a verification period of 3 days and it worked only from a dichotomous perspective (fake news or not, the reasons for which it had been reported were hidden).

From there, Facebook introduced once more an already existing tool called “related articles”. This function shows related news articles upon publication so that an article’s sources can be immediately corroborated, facilitating fact checking. 

Other tools that are being used are conversation bots, like those that will be used throughout the Brazilian elections. These are automated chats that respond to public queries regarding ways to verify information however they are quite restricted in their responses.

None of these tools however resolves the true cause of the problem, but only attempts to combat the spread of links recognised as fake news.

Another tool is extension programs for browsers that identify and tag links to questionable news articles based on databases like B.S. detector. The problem is that it depends on constant updating of the databases upon which they are constructed and they do not apply to every context and country.

None of these tools however resolves the true cause of the problem, but only attempts to combat the spread of links recognised as fake news. The structural problems previously mentioned remain intact.

So… What other solution is there? 

As has been mentioned, the upcoming elections in Latin America will increase the use of fake news. It has been proven that politicians and parties wish to manipulate public opinion regardless of the consequences, and without definite solutions the biggest threats to fake news are the very citizens themselves.

There are important initiatives originating from groups of activists and journalists that carry out fact checking, such as Chequeados in Argentina and ColombiaCheck in Colombia.

In spite of their efforts however, it is important that citizens generate a more critical eye with regards to the information they consume and when faced with suspicious news sources, they must learn not to share them. 

Article previously published in Asuntos del Sur. Read the original here

About the author

Equipo #InnovaPolíticaLatAm es un proyecto que propone la creación de una estrategia de innovación política para América Latina. Esto significa buscar nuevas estrategias para darle solución a los problemas históricos de la región: la no inclusión social de actores marginados, como los pueblos indígenas; la debilidad de la calidad del Estado y su relación con la sociedad; y la persistencia de la explotación de nuestros recursos naturales.

Team #InnovaPolíticaLatAm is a project which proposes the creation of an innovative political strategy for Latin America. This includes searching for new strategies to create solutions to historical problems from which the region suffers: lack of social inclusion of marginalised groups such as the indigenous population, weak state institutions and their relationship with society, and the persistence of exploitation of natural resources. 

 


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