The German “Forum on Media and Development” (Forum Medien und Entwicklung, FOME) is a network of institutions and individuals active in the field of media development cooperation. I was invited to participate in, and moderate a panel at FoME Symposium 2017 held in Berlin on 16 – 17 November 2017.
This year’s symposium theme was Power Shifts – Media Freedom and the Internet. It explored how Internet governance issues are becoming more and more important for those who want to develop media (both mainstream media and social media) as democratic platforms.
On 17 November 2017, I moderated an international panel on Fake News: Tackling the phenomena respecting freedom of expression. It brought together representatives from government, civil society and a global media platform to discuss their roles and how they can interact to tackle the issue – all within the framework of Freedom of Expression (FOE).
The panellists were:
- William Bird, Director, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA)
- Joseph Nasongo, Commissioner, National Cohesion and Integration Commission, Kenya
- Miriam Estrin, Public Policy Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google
Here are my opening remarks that set the context for our discussion:
Just as there are many definitions of Fake News, there can also be many perspectives on the topic. We all recognise Fake News as a problem, so let’s focus on how it can be countered. What are the local, national and global level strategies? What alliances, tools and resources are needed for such countering? What cautions and alarms can we raise?
To respond to any problem, we need to understand its contours.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less. And the developing world governments don’t have a monopoly over Fake News either: for over half a century, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries manufactured a vast amount of disinformation (i.e. deliberately wrong information) that was fed to their own citizens and spread overseas in sustained propaganda efforts.
Sitting here, within a few kilometres from where the Berlin Wall once stood, we need to acknowledge that veritable factory of lies that operated on the other side!
So what’s new? During the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online. From websites to social media accounts (many hiding behind pseudonyms), the web has provided a globalised playing field where dubious content could go ‘viral’.
Yesterday at this Symposium, Mark Nelson from CIMA said “We live in a world where lies are very cheap, and much easier to disseminate than the truth.”
Which reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: ““A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes!”
Variations of this quote have been attributed to several persons including Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Whoever said it first, these words neatly sum up a long standing challenge to modern societies: how to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods.
As Mark Nelson asked us yesterday, how can we “make the Internet a place where truth is valued and spread – instead of disinformation?” This is the crux of our challenge.
So what is to be done? Among the options available, which ones are most desirable?
In searching for solutions to the Fake News crisis, we must recognise it is a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or quick fix.
Indeed, any ‘medicine’ prescribed for the malady of Fake News should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations.
As human rights defenders caution, there is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate international human rights law. This is NOT the way to deal with Fake News.
In my view, Fake News is a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis. It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and the media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Some call this a ‘Journalism Deficit’, or a gulf between what journalism ought be, and what it has (mostly) become today.
In my view, a free press is not an automatic guarantee against Fake News. In other words, media freedom is necessary — but not sufficient — to ensure that media content is trusted by the public. We need to better measure public trust in media and what the current trust levels mean for those producing media content professionally.
I would argue that the medium to long term response to Fake News is to narrow and bridge the Journalism Deficit by nurturing quality journalism and critical consumption of media. If you agree with this premise, what specific measures can we recommend and advocate?
Let us explore how media development can counter Fake News by exposing it, undermining it, and equipping media consumers with the knowledge and skills to spot it – and not spread it inadvertently.
For this, we need everyone’s cooperation.
- We need global social media platforms and digital gatekeepers like Google to join with all their might (and what might!).
- We need governments to be thoughtfully, carefully evaluate the optimum responses.
- We need civil society to go beyond mere hand waving and finger pointing to help enhance media and information literacy.
- We need researchers to keep studying and discerning trends that can influence policy and regulation (where appropriate).
We are not going to solve the problem in an hour. But we can at least ask the right questions, and clarify the issues in our minds. Onward!