Who’s afraid of fake news?

This writer’s strategic research firm CenSEI was approached last week by a Los Angeles app developer about his group’s planned software for detecting fake news.

Some big tech companies are, in fact, already working on mechanisms to flag and take down false information posted online. Facebook and Google are testing such apps, and Apple aims to screen out fake news from its News app. Leading Paris daily Le Monde is among mainstream news organizations harnessing software to fight fraudulent reports. (Sadly, there are also apps to generate fake news.)

Seasoned diplomats don’t need geek apps to spot lies masquerading as news. Like competent journalists and expert academics, they double-check and corroborate claims and accounts, especially those posted online by sources with no authority on the subject or solid reputation for credible news gathering.

Not to mention checking the purported news against their own mental database of experience and knowledge accumulated over the years, in the same way as professionals in other fields, from doctors and lawyers to engineers and scientists.

So, few embassy officials (or travel agents) were take in by a recent “apnews.com” post shared on Philippine social-media about President Donald J. Trump’s new immigration policy supposedly giving Filipinos monthlong visas upon arrival in the United States.

But fake news is the easy part of picking through the zillions of stories, views, pictures, videos and other content clogging the Web. In fact, there are far more subtle ways by which wrong or slanted information spread and take hold of the public mind, and even the hardnosed sentinels of mainstream media.

Is it news, opinion, propaganda or fake news?

Fake news lies (no pun intended) on the far end of a spectrum of public-affairs content, which has straight news reports on the other end, followed by opinion, then propaganda before descending into the mire of outright falsehood. A special
category is satire, which doesn’t pretend to be factually true, but may offer valid humorous commentary.

What about blogs? That’s really more like a mode of disseminating information, with a person or a group posting material often with no institution formally behind or backing the bloggers, though they may be connected to certain entities.

So, a blog may contain one or some of the four broad categories of public-affairs content, from straight news to fake news. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter and other social-media pages, personal or organizational web sites, and of course, media web sites, and official pages of government, non-governmental, and international organizations. All are platforms with their respective combinations of content, depending on their objectives and desired reputation and audience.

Obviously, reputable news web site would seek to avoid having fake news on them. Bloggers seeking to obtain or maintain respectability and credibility, like working journalists and scientists, would also shun bogus information, and would be quick with corrections and apologies if they inadvertently posted mistaken or misleading content.

But other bloggers and agenda-driven platforms may not mind and might even deliberately post dubious or biased material. Politically slanted sites would often be quick to disseminate reports favorable to their messaging without checking.

Which underscores the importance of knowing the overall objectives and perspectives of web sites propounding the information being validated. Indeed, that imperative applies to all platforms and sources, even national and international entities. Every organization has an agenda, which would influence what information it puts out and highlights.

What’s your angle?

Globally dominant Western media often portray themselves as objective and factual. Yet, they, too, have perspectives shaping what news, views, personages and even images and video they highlight or downplay. Just compare the coverage of CNN, BBC and Voice of America with Al-Jazeera, RT and Xinhua, especially on topics of vital interest to the nations of those news organizations.

This is especially true of war, both within and between nations. Many studies show slanted coverage of conflict, from the Vietnam War to the Syrian insurgency. Two notable reports focused on the 2011 Libyan Civil War: “News coverage of civil conflicts is biased in both democracies and autocracies” in The Washington Post, and “Filtering Revolution: Reporting Bias in International News Coverage of the Libyan Civil War”, a Harvard study.

And the slant has been there from the start. Cited in a 2013 Hoover Institution article, “A Brief History of Media Bias”, American historian Chilton Williamson writes of US journalism’s formative years: “The presentation of facts simply as facts, editors and writers reasoned, cannot accomplish the exalted goal of saving civilization. To do that, facts needed to be presented according to those rhetorical patterns of thought we call opinions, patterns pointed in some particular direction of convincing an imagined jury.”

So, when you next read anything, make sure to ask: “What’s his angle?”

Former Asiaweek editor Ric Saludo teaches
media and politics at the Asian Center for Journalism to media practictioners in the region.



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