Fake news, to me, is a bit like a fast-moving cancer. You’ve got to look really hard to detect it, but once you do, you realize it has spread everywhere. Like some aggressive variants of the disease, it can fester undiagnosed, but as soon as you’ve detected it, it’s metastasized into something really nasty.
I began my inquiries thinking that all the recent hand-wringing about the “fake news problem” in the global media was because, well, the global media is dominated and influenced by the U.S. media, as well as the U.S. tech companies behind the platforms used to spread fake news. But as I spoke to journalists around the world, it became clear that disinformation has long plagued many countries, feeding off a wide range of political or ethnic tensions and causing divisions that, more often than not, benefit certain special interests over others.
In Brazil, for example, the 2016 impeachment process against former President Dilma Rousseff was accompanied by multiple fake news reports. According to a study by the University of São Paulo, three out of the five most widely shared news stories on Facebook during the week preceding the impeachment vote were false, BBC Brazil reported.
“Fake news has been an issue in Brazilian politics since the 2014 general elections,” said Sérgio Spagnuolo, a data journalist who runs Volt Data Lab in Brazil. “One of the main candidates died in a plane crash in the middle of the campaign that year. Imagine the lies and unproven rumours people published.”
In India, the ease at which disinformation spreads is exacerbated by the fact that the nation is home to 22 languages, which makes it harder for news consumers to properly verify what a video or text is purportedly showing. In April, a grisly clip showing a murder in Bangladesh was falsely passed off as the murder of a Hindu man by Muslims. As technologist-turned-activist Pratik Sinha tracked on his self-described “anti-propaganda” news site Alt News, the same video went viral once again in May, with some falsely claiming that it showed the murder of a junior police officer in India’s troubled Kashmir region.
“Now communication has become so complex, if you see a video with an elaborate script behind it, you tend to believe that such a thing happened,” said Sinha.
A video from Bangladesh is being circulated as Kashmiri students killing a CRPF Jawanhttps://t.co/Ilrj1JpXD1
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) May 29, 2017
Samanth Subramanian, an Indian journalist who reported on Macedonia’s fake news industry for Wired magazine, identified several reasons why India’s media ecosystem is vulnerable to the unchecked circulation of fake news stories (his observations could easily apply to many other countries).
“Our institutional filters are already anemic,” Subramanian told me. “Our newspaper reporting is compromised and sloppy; our television journalism is atrocious; we have a stunted tradition of magazine reportage. As a result, there are other ways for vested interests to commandeer the stream of news and insert their disinformation into the flow.”
The speed at which false stories can spread across social networks like WhatsApp also benefits propagandists and impedes those trying to counter disinformation with facts, said Zimbabwean journalist Fungai Machirori.
“When news is then found to be fake, it’s very hard to ensure that all people in the chain of misinformation get the correct version of the [story],” she said. “And that’s in part because they would have received it from such a wide range of sources.”
Bahrain-based journalist Husain Marhoon, who runs a fact-checking site that monitors the Gulf region, noted that no matter the country, a key challenge with “fake news” is people’s tendency to believe information that confirms their prior beliefs, no matter what the evidence actually shows.
“The power of fake news is that [it contains] a portion of the truth that makes [it] easy to believe,” he wrote in a recent post. “[It is] designed in such a way that [it] relates to the initial readiness of those who receive it… This is what makes people sometimes refuse to believe that a story is fake.”
You could also argue that confronting the “fake news” problem doesn’t mean blaming confirmation bias. Instead, journalists should challenge “politicians using the term to denigrate the media,” said Peter Fray, a journalism professor at the University of Technology Sydney.
“The term ‘fake news’ is being used by lazy, under-performing politicians to blame others for their own inadequacies,” said Fray, who founded Australia’s first fact-checking website. “It needs to be called out for what it is — political damage control — and not promoted by the very people it seeks to undermine, i.e. the journalists.”
The journalists I spoke to would all agree that disinformation is a powerful weapon, no matter who wields it and no matter how it manifests itself in different media environments. Like some cancers, the “fake news” phenomenon may be incurable, but there undoubtedly are still many ways that journalists can provide a defense.
“What started as a handful of ideologues or some net cowboys making a buck out of social media has become a global virus,” Fray said. “It is up to journalists and publishers to vaccinate the population against it.”
H.R. Venkatesh has more than 15 years of experience as a journalist across roles in reporting, editing and anchoring. He is a former fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and the founder of NetaData, an Indian political news site. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Dana Lee