Media vs Misinformation: the battle continues

Civilisation and free press are always going to have trouble undermining lies in the media, especially with the substantial handover of print to a far less regulated online presence. However, that does not take the responsibility out of the hands of the audience or, of course, the media.

Amongst others, there has been call for some kind of pushback against the ambush of ‘fake news’ appearing substantially over the last three years, and specifically alongside the expansion of social media as a kind of news outlet. In recent years, the misinformation highlighted by social media and the internet has given birth to a more vigorous role of fact checking in publications. The idea is to be able to research any suspicions regarding news articles and label any claims in the stories as false, unproven or or true.

Misinformation in the media is probably more often considered an American issue. To some degree this is true. Acting editor and fact checker for The Journal.ie, Christine Bohan said: “Ireland has a lower level of disinformation in comparison to other countries.”

However, the possibility of a lower frequency of fake news stories does not change the fact that Irish consumers of news are just as susceptible to trusting fabrications or half-truths. According to Ms Bohan anti-vaccine stories are an example of a common trend in deceptive propaganda which is circulated.

Aside from public social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, there is another perhaps more understated source for fake news, which is messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Ms Bohan said: “A huge amount of information is shared on messaging apps every day. It can’t be verified. It can’t be fact checked. Because it’s a closed system it’s impossible to track or see where false messages are originating.”

These fact checkers have emerged more prominently in Ireland during referendums over the last four years. This has been a result of propaganda spread widely by either side of debates on marriage equality and repeal the eighth.

Jason O’Mahony is an Irish political blogger and he currently writes a column for The Irish Times. He was awarded Irish Political Blogger of the Year in 2013 and 2014. He talked about the concerns of public trust and accountability.

He said: “There are those creating fake news, but I believe there is an onus on the public to verify and inform themselves, especially if a story is too emotionally convenient.

“That story about Trump supposedly ignoring a child in a wheelchair is a classic example. We need to teach critical analysis more: who is saying this? Why are they saying it? Am I being emotionally manipulated?”

Mr O’Mahony followed up by also suggesting, as Christine Bohan has, that Ireland does not seem as impacted by fake news as other countries. He said: “I’m not so sure that [Ireland] is as targeted as other larger countries where a concerted effort was made. Having said that, there is certainly a tendency to circulate news stories with a clear slant that confirms one’s bias.”

The question of infringing on freedom of the press and freedom of speech in order to control this still significant problem is not quite clear cut in order to answer problems about this convoluted conversation. Mr O’Mahony detailed why lumping the two together is incorrect.  

He said: “We have to separate the right to free speech from the right to a free press. They’re two different things. A free press has a professional obligation to impose professional standards on itself, such as fact checking and not taking sides, or if it does, to be very clear about it.

“Having said that, I always think we are better off with too much free speech rather than too little. I’d like to see a US style right to free speech here, although I suspect you’d never get the Irish to vote for that: they would be too concerned about people going around bad mouthing them.”

The issue of fake news appears to be something very manageable, if it is handled correctly. However, that could be what needs to change about the mindset of western democracies. When fake news, yellow journalism and plain old lies and have been around as long as they have (and probably plan to stick about), it might be more prudent for people to just engage with the search for truth and fact checking instead of simply clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’.

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