Op-Ed

Recognizing fake news

Human beings seem hardwired to believe in conspiracies and plots by certain groups and individuals seemingly bent on nefarious purposes and determined to do harm to or undermine others.

By example, despite scientific and medical evidence to the contrary, there are those who are vehement in their belief that vaccines for diseases like mumps, measles and rubella are manufactured by governments or others to harm certain groups.

One of the most recent examples is in the Pacific nation of Samoa, a country of approximately 200,000, still struggling with a measles outbreak which has killed 83 people, mostly infants.

The outbreak was made considerably worse because of parents and guardians who refused to immunize their children, believing that vaccines are inherently dangerous.

This is fake news that is very harmful in myriad ways. In 2018, one of England’s most senior doctors, Professor Dame Sally Davies, warned that fake news and myths about vaccines related to measles and mumps were putting children at risk.

As reported in the UK’s The Independent, “The proportion of children being vaccinated has gone into reverse after a decade of improvements since the early 2000s,” because of the fake information on various websites and newsfeeds.

The ability to spread such fake news so quickly through social media poses potentially grave threats to health and human welfare. Most Bahamians vaccinate their children for childhood diseases.

But if some Bahamians believe such fake news about vaccines there could be a risk to public health, which is the reason health and education officials require vaccines for children in schools.

A friend reports that while getting a haircut at a barbershop last week, one of the barbers was adamant that vaccines were a conspiracy to make people sick. Asked where he got his information, he replied, “From online.”

This was the same retort from the manager of a business who told this columnist that much of the discussion on the global climate emergency is a hoax, that the climate has warmed the planet for millennia and that we had nothing to worry about. His source was certain websites, which served as an echo chamber for his views.

Many have seen and dismissed the fake news videos about the current coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China. Yet, there are other fake news videos that are causing panic among some globally.

Mostly false

Fake news includes stories that are not true as well as stories that may have some truth but are mostly false and not fully accurate.

During Hurricane Dorian, social media was used for good ends such as helping families to learn about how loved ones were faring in areas affected by the monster storm.

Yet, fake news and partial information on social media can also lead to hysteria and misinformation during natural disasters. During a previous hurricane there were reports of 30 deaths, which proved inaccurate.

During events such as Dorian, governments and the media struggle to get and to relay accurate and timely information, both of which are difficult during the inevitable fog of misinformation during such disasters.

Given the nature of conspiratorial thinking, some automatically believe that they are being misled by public officials.

Ignorance and lack of understanding provide fertile ground for fake news. Unfounded suspicion and conspiratorial mindsets are rife in most societies, including ours.

It is instructive and curious how the two major dailies quite differently reported and editorialized on the recent Hurricane Dorian donor conference. In some ways they offered near opposite takes or narratives on a certain aspect of the same story.

Government officials, including those in communications, need to be as clear as possible in how they communicate and should seek to be as non-defensive as possible and open to clarifying statements and recognizing error.

Government officials should also think about how the messages they wish to communicate may be understood or received differently by various audiences and correspondingly should be careful how they communicate.

Likewise, journalists should provide greater context and understanding of a story and not deflect these responsibilities or their errors with the simple retort that communications could have been clearer. This is often too easy an excuse for lazy journalism.

Part of the mindset of some in reporting certain stories is an automatic conspiratorial mindset, which begins with the belief that something is always or typically being hidden by public officials.

Media mindsets

Of course, there are some in the media whose mindsets are so entrenched and biased that self-reflection and objectivity are now exceedingly difficult.

Further, a retired senior public official who recently vetted a story by a reporter was alarmed by the number of factual errors, despite the latter having recorded the interview. The senior official notes that he has dealt with such poor reporting of the facts for years and that little has improved.

Editors often have to revise and redo stories, asking for clarifications and more reporting. But if some reporters cannot even get basic facts correct it suggests a generally poor quality of journalism in the country.

Among the qualities needed for better journalism and as an antidote to fake news are the capacity for critical thinking, information awareness and literacy about current events, history and other areas needed to be a reasonably informed journalist.

The more critically we are able to think and the greater quality of information we possess, the better we are as journalists and citizens in combatting bogus and fake news.

Simply regurgitating, without context and good reporting, a press release from a political party, business or civic group, is poor and lazy reporting. The mainstream media are gatekeepers who have an obligation to be diligent and fair in the reporting of stories.

The billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet, the guru and founder of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., recently agreed to sell the company’s BH Media unit and 30 daily newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for $140 million in cash.

The legendary investor who delivered newspapers as a teen and who loved the industry has described most newspapers as “toast”. Most young people get their news from online sources on their mobile devices.

With the decline of newspapers as gatekeepers, fake news may become normative, with citizens having even more difficulty filtering and recognizing what is fake and what is real news and information.

Bombarded

On most social media platforms Bahamians view on a regular basis, such gatekeepers do not exist. We are bombarded daily with memes and tropes intended to sway our thoughts and to influence our behavior.

More and more Bahamians read the packaging of the food we consume, though even more of us should do so, paying greater attention to genetically modified foods and the chemicals in the foods we eat.

Likewise, we should do more due diligence when digesting the content from social media, much of which is hazardous to the truth and to our being well-informed.

A good place to start in sussing out fake news is to look at the original source of the information we are viewing. Information, the source of which is not labelled, should be immediately suspect.

So too should be voice notes, videos and texts from well-known sources of misinformation, mercenaries, loudmouths and others who perpetually send out false and misleading information.

But it is not always easy to discern fake news because of our biases.

A story in the Business and Economy section of the University of Texas at Austin’s UT website, under the headline “‘Fake News’ Isn’t Easy to Spot on Facebook, According to New Study”, notes: “The Facebook environment, it would seem, muddies the waters between fact and fiction. Unlike when we’re at work or focused on a goal, we’re unable to think very critically when we’re in this passive, pleasure-seeking mindset.

“‘When we’re on social media, we’re passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment,’ [Patricia] Moravec [assistant professor of information] said. ‘We’re avoiding something else.’

“‘…Social media users are highly subject to confirmation bias, the unintentional tendency to gravitate toward and process information that is consistent with existing beliefs,’ she said. ‘This can result in decision-making that ignores information that is inconsistent with those beliefs.’”

The story continued: “‘The fact that social media perpetuates and feeds this bias complicates people’s ability to make evidence-based decisions,’ she said. ‘But if the facts that you do have are polluted by fake news that you truly believe, then the decisions you make are going to be much worse.’”

There will be a need for greater media literacy, especially as artificial intelligence and sophisticated algorithms are used to micro target each of us with messages designed to confirm our biases and to manipulate and direct what we think and feel.

There has always been fake news and disinformation. But in the social media age, such information will be more disruptive and at times lethal because mass audiences can be efficiently targeted and quickly reached with fake news and falsehoods that we all too readily accept, as Bahamians say, as “gospel”.

frontporchguardian@gmail.com.

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