We’re only days into the federal election campaign and already the first instances of “fake news” have surfaced online.
Although the term itself is not new, fake news presents a growing threat for societies across the world. Only a small amount of fake news is needed to disrupt a conversation, and at extremes it can have an impact on democratic processes, including elections.
In the RSF Index 2018 report, the NGO Reporters without Borders highlighted how media were facing a constant “anti-media rhetoric” from politicians that has spread out throughout the world. With such attacks, far-right political strategists such as Steve Bannon seek to discredit legitimate media and lift up social media – where “news” can more easily escape from editorial gate-keeping and accountability – to become the main source of information to the public.
With the world wrestling with the disruptive impact of digital communication on democracy, and the news media struggling for its very survival as it faces unprecedented challenges and public attack, we desperately need new institutions and mechanisms to put the public foremost in considering the functions of media.
“Kick this mob out” shouted the front page of The Daily Telegraph reporting the calling of the 2013 election in which Tony Abbott was to triumph. Restraint and modesty have never been the hallmarks of tabloid newspapers. Sometimes they celebrate what they claim is their impact – most famously when the London Sun proclaimed “It’s The Sun wot won it” after the 1992 Conservative victory. But it is a long time since any tabloid newspaper could plausibly claim such a role because their reach has shrunk so markedly. In 1972, the biggest-selling newspaper in Australia was The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, with a daily circulation of 648,000. Its stablemate, the Melbourne Herald, was the biggest-selling afternoon newspaper with 498,000.
We shouldn’t need a Super Bowl commercial costing around $10 million to remind us that information is supposed to matter in a democracy. Yet the Washington Post thought we did, so it told 111 million Americans watching the Super Bowl that “knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free.” It was another sign that our longstanding faith in the power of information is faltering, undermining democracy. And unless we want this faith to be replaced by authoritarianism, we need to reform our education and political systems to restore our faith in facts.
A recent study from Ohio State University communications scholars found that news stories connecting climate change to natural disasters actually backfire among skeptics.
Transparency is needed from Facebook to ensure it is free from any political pressures. This will also empower its users to take action in fighting hoaxes and misinformation.
The federal budget has finally answered some of the questions about the Liberal government’s plans to subsidize the news business, which were first floated late last year. But the details revealed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau raises many more questions about Ottawa’s reasons for supporting journalism.
Democracy and social progress die without science and fact-based knowledge. Science and facts are the foundational basis for rational and logical disputation and the possibility of reaching some truths. Fake news, on the other hand, is a calculated assault on democratic freedoms.