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Fake news and hate speech

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By Florangel Rosario Braid

Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid

Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid

Two phenomena sweeping many societies around the world today are the spread of “fake news defined as “made-up stuff,” masterfully manipulated to make them appear as credible journalistic reports that are easily passed online to large audiences. The other is “hate speech” which refers to expressions that advocate an intent to harm, based upon the target’s being identified with a certain social or demographic group. It advocates, threatens, or encourages violent acts as well as fosters a climate of prejudice or intolerance.

From recent news reports, a large number of websites carrying news started to spread to wider audiences during the Trump-Clinton electoral campaign. This continues up the present, threatening the credibility of American mainstream media and politics.

This trend is undoubtedly affecting the global media, including our own local media. But its negative impact goes further. Developing countries, and especially one like ours which faces the challenges of climate change, rising unemployment, and food security requires the free flow of authentic information and knowledge. Our vision of a dynamic economy and vibrant democracy that promotes a level playing field depends on good governance which can only happen if we have a citizenry that is well-informed.

Let’s therefore examine the origin of “fake news” how it grew, and what can be done to avert it.

Actually, fake news is not really new. Our society had survived hoaxes, libelous information, and lies peddled as truths since the early beginnings of journalism. But it was during the US electoral campaign between President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that false news or what is called “alternative media” proliferated within the US and beyond its shores. An example of a big fake news of 2016 was the supposed endorsement of Trump by Pope Francis.

The rapid spread of fake and alternative news can be attributed to Facebook, a main game changer today. With 1.79 billion people around the world using Facebook each month, it easily dwarfed other online programs.

As Craig Stevenson, editor of BuzzFeed, a website, said fake news, especially that coming from Facebook, became popular and resonated with its users. People liked them and shared them with others. The stories that performed well were mostly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton. Partisan content evidently fared better on Facebook than on mainstream media. More than a hundred websites peddling false news stories for the American voting public were created. What is even more surprising is that pro-Trump websites were found in countries like Macedonia and Russia.

The Trump campaign helped circulate false news stories from fake news websites. Trump was known to have lied many times but being a man of influence, this even helped create a formidable environment for encouraging falsehood. Analysts of the electoral campaign noted that the “spread of fake news with unprecedented impunity” was abetted by the two polarizing presidential candidates and their passionate supporters.

But charges of fake news are nothing new as related by a Christian writer who narrates that while growing up in Tennessee, she was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a “Biblical worldview.” As examples, climate change which was believed as not real, and evolution, which is a myth that was made up by scientists who hate God, or that capitalism is God’s ideal for society. These conservative evangelicals believed that the Bible, their authority, is inerrant and supernatural as well as scientifically sound. This gave the rationale to reject information from scientific sources.

Hate speech, on the other hand, is race-related. But it also springs from hatred based on people’s gender or sexual orientation. The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, calls for a ban on expressing ideas of superiority or inferiority of people by “race.” For hatred on the basis of nationality or religion, this is criminalized in Article 20 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Hate speech, because it creates the “us” and “them” and fosters a climate of prejudice and intolerance, is not allowed on Facebook. But Internet’s speed and reach makes it difficult to enforce national legislation.

How can our society deal with these challenges?

People from academe, journalists, and other concerned citizens offer this advice: By learning how to spot fake news by being skeptical of headlines, by investigating a source (most real news outlets have websites with an “About” section that provides information such as the company that runs it, staff members and a mission statement, and examining the photos; developing critical thinking and through what is called targeted advertising boycotts. Utilize fact-checking sites. Stop getting news from social media, and don’t rely on only one media outlet. And, finally, to support good journalism, and offer media literacy in schools.

Fake news is not illegal and thus, the need to think of innovative ways to curb and eliminate the scourge.

My email, Florangel.braid@gmail.com

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