Facing up to the challenge of fake news
“I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” Donald Trump told a CNN reporter at a January 11 news conference, a little over a week before he took the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States.
At the time, reports were swirling around Washington about possible Russian interference in the November presidential election that some commentators said had contributed to Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton, the Democratic challenger.
Just before the encounter with Mr Trump, CNN had carried a story purporting that the US intelligence community had prepared a report that the Russians had damaging information on the then president-elect. The story, subsequently disputed on the grounds of accuracy, is what understandably attracted Mr Trump’s ire.
With this labelling of the influential US global television network, Mr Trump brought discussion of the contemporary phenomenon of “fake news” out of media circles where it had been largely confined, into the mainstream of American and, by extension, global society.
It is clear, however, that Mr Trump’s targetting of CNN was motivated by more than this single story. On the whole, the billionaire businessman, a rookie to politics, had been getting mostly negative coverage, not just from CNN, but most other mainstream media since his entry into the political fray.
Despite their best efforts to get it right every time, the best media house is still likely to get it wrong every now and then. Besides, media do not manufacture stories as the creators of fiction do but rely heavily on various sources of information with whom they have developed some kind of relationship.
Sources unfortunately can come up short sometimes, even though they may have proved to be highly reliable in the past. In the circumstances, CNN, the pioneer of 24-hour television news coverage, should be given the benefit of the doubt. It is not a media organization with a reporting history that would suggest an association with fake news.
Fake news, to give a simple definition, is the deliberate creation and peddling of misinformation, disguised as news, for deceptive purposes. Put another way, mostly old-fashioned political propaganda which has found new life through opportunities provided by modern communications technology, specifically social media.
Since the January news conference, other media houses, including the New York Times, have faced similar accusations from the US president. What is ironic, however, is the availability of evidence showing that Mr Trump’s campaign for the White House did benefit from the influence of fake news in swaying voters.
So the question must be asked: what really is Mr Trump’s objective, now that he is under intense scrutiny by the traditional media in fulfillment of their watchdog role? His attacks on CNN, The New York Times and other traditional media with the aim of hurting their credibility seem more like a case of trying to shoot the messenger to divert public attention from the message.
An old political tactic, this approach seems quite plausible as Mr Trump’s media portrayal since assuming office has been largely negative and mostly of his own doing. Perception of his disappointing performance is reflected in his having the lowest approval rating of any president in recent history, so early in his tenure when such ratings tend to be highest.
Here in Barbados, with the approach of a general election, Barbadians should take more than passing interest in the negative nature of fake news lest they become easy prey for manipulation. Fake news thrive in an election environment and, from current indications, the Internet will be a key battleground where many a battle will be fought in the upcoming campaign.
What makes Barbadians particularly susceptible to fake news is a seemingly insatiable appetite for the juiciest gossip. A few websites trading in such are already well known. While social media have expanded opportunities for the average citizen to engage in greater exercise of the right to freedom of expression, it has not been accompanied by sensitization of the accompanying responsibility.
Traditional media are required to practise responsible journalism or suffer the consequences provided under the law, which can include being sued out of business. Peddlers of fake news, however, escape such legal scrutiny because they generally function under the cover of anonymity, which allows them to do their damage. Barbadians need, therefore, to be on their guard to avoid being swayed by such misinformation.
Mindful of its responsibility, Barbados TODAY affirms its commitment to the highest standards of journalism during the coming election season. Our aim is simple: to provide comprehensive factual coverage of the various issues so that Barbadians are well-informed and can come to their own independent conclusions.