Countering Fake News: No quick fixes or silver bullets | Sunday Observer

Countering Fake News: No quick fixes or silver bullets

Fake News! The label may be new, but the phenomenon is not.

We have had fake news, in one form or another, for centuries. It comes in different shapes and forms: disinformation (deliberately spreading falsehoods), misinformation (unknowingly spreading falsehoods), propaganda and rumours. All mislead and obfuscate to varying degrees, and some can even incite violence.

What is unprecedented is the high speed and wide reach of today’s fake news. As Internet use spread worldwide, some found it an effective medium to spread their distortions, tall tales and conspiracy theories. From certain websites to social media accounts (many operated under pseudonyms), the web has become a space where dubious content could go ‘viral’, i.e. spread rapidly through multiple sharing. Soon, things can get worse. Mischievous manufacturing of fake content will get a boost with audio and video synthesizing technologies becoming simpler and more widely available.

The digital tech boost has only aggravated a long-standing challenge to all societies: how to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods intended to confuse the public. The challenge becomes harder in democracies that are committed to protecting freedom of speech and other human rights.

Indo-Pak experiences

Recent experiences in other countries show how fake news can influence election outcomes, undermine international relations and even spark violence in already volatile or highly charged situations.

Did disinformation campaigns cost Hillary Clinton the US presidency in November 2016? The answer is not straightforward as multiple factors were at work, but we now know she was highly demonised through deliberate falsehoods spread online among American voters. Examples closer home illustrate other hazards of fake news.

On July 3, India’s information technology ministry said that many “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation” were being circulated on social media, especially, WhatsApp, leading to the lynching of innocent people in several states. At least 17 have been killed by July 12. These violent acts were fuelled by panic over child kidnappers that spread, paradoxically, after a distorted version of a child protection video advertisement went viral on WhatsApp – the most popular messaging platform in India used by over 200 million.

The Facebook company, which owns WhatsApp, says, they will start notifying users when a message has been forwarded, rather than composed by the sender. This week they also took out full page advertisements in key Indian newspapers (“Stories that seem hard to believe are often untrue — so check elsewhere to see if they are really true!”), and plan to conduct “news literacy workshops”.

To be fair, content monitoring and moderation is much harder on WhatsApp because all messages are encrypted (can only be read by sender and designated recipients), and exchanges happen within closed groups limited to 256 users or less. In contrast, what is shared on Facebook is visible to its administrators, as well as fact-checkers.

Meanwhile, as Pakistan heads to a general election on July 25, concerns are being raised whether fake news can mislead some voters. Nearly one out of every two registered voters is between 18 and 30 years and many of them use social media to learn and spread information about social and political issues. The potential to influence them through fake news exists.

Earlier this month, two researchers, Dr Ayesha Ali and Rubab Zahra Sarfraz, published the findings of a survey among social media users in Pakistan. They wrote: “Around 91% of the users are well aware of the fake news dilemma, whereas 75% of these users say that they also verify their sources before sharing news online. However, this does not necessarily translate into more discerning users, as 82% of those who verify their sources say that they have believed a story that later turned out to be false.”

Security concern?

Sri Lanka’s government -- including its defence establishment -- is evidently following these developments with interest.

Last month, the Institute of National Security Studies in Sri Lanka (INSSSL) – a think tank within the Ministry of Defence -- organised a symposium on ‘Media and Democracy: Misinformation, Fake News and its Impact on National Security’. Attended by a select group of invitees, it had discussed the spread of misinformation, and how to manage it.

According to the INSSSL website (, among the topics discussed was ‘how to regulate social media’. Participants had reportedly considered regulatory efforts in four countries ‘to draw lessons from’: Germany’s ‘Facebook Law’, Estonian Defence League’s Cyber Unit, Malaysia’s ‘Anti Fake News Law’, and China’s approach of governing its social media space.

At this event, the Lankan military’s perspective was reportedly expressed as follows: “Misinformation directed at the military is a national security concern. Regulation is needed on misinformation in the public domain. There has to be a long term solution to censorship. Inter-agency groups, Defence Ministry’s Cyber Security Unit, filtering mechanisms on harmful content are options that should be explored.”

Not having been part of the meeting (invited, but was overseas), I am not sure what kind of wrong or distorted information the military considers a ‘national security concern’. It would be good to know more.

Reassuringly, more balanced views had also been expressed. The Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Response Team (SL-CERT) representative had pointed out that it was “difficult to identify individuals behind certain accounts on social media, track IP addresses and obtain court orders to do so. We need to balance data privacy and privacy of users against the need for regulation.”

In practice, regulating fake news is fraught with difficulties. When searching for solutions, we must recognise that fake news exists in both mainstream and social media, and that it is a nuanced and complex problem. There are no simple or quick fixes.

Measured responses

Any ‘medicine’ for the malady of fake news should not make matters worse than the ailment itself. Instead, we need a series of measured responses, some short term and others working on medium to long terms.

Many democracies are struggling to find the right mix of responses. For example in April 2018, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced administrative penalties against journalists found responsible for ‘fake news’ (undefined). If found guilty, official media accreditation could be suspended or cancelled.

There were vehement protests against this over-broad proposal that singled out only mainstream media’s journalists. The idea was dropped.

In contrast, Malaysia’s former government adopted an Anti Fake News Law in March 2018 amidst opposition. The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and included features, visuals and audio recordings. Covering both mainstream and social media, it provides for heavy fines up to USD 128,000 and/or up to 10 years in jail.

Implementation began in April, a few weeks before the May 9 election swept an opposition alliance into power. The new government has yet to keep its election promise to repeal this draconian law.

Balancing Act

At the bottom of debates on countering fake news or disinformation lies a fundamental question: who can be the ultimate arbiters of truth – politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals or judges?

The truth is not always simple or self-evident (ask any experienced journalist). In pluralistic societies, we often have different interpretations of the same facts and figures: the contestation of ideas and perspectives is an integral part of public discourse.

But when laws or regulations are applied to determine what is acceptable, whose ‘truth’ prevails – the ruling party’s or state media’s or majority community’s? Do other versions then become ‘fake’?

For these reasons, we must exercise great caution in responding to the current wave of fake news in strict legal or regulatory terms. There is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter (what they consider) fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate their commitments under international human rights law.

This is not to deny a problem exists. In the quest for coping strategies, we must explore all non-regulatory options too.

One proven, long term response to fake news is to nurture good quality journalism. Indeed, fake news is only a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis of declining public trust in journalism and media in general. Fake news fills a vacuum of credibility built up over the years.

Another strategy is to enhance citizens’ ability to critically consume information and media, which is variously known as media literacy, information literacy and digital literacy. Strengthening these competencies can help ‘immunise’ society against believing and spreading fake news.

Finally, we need independent fact-checking that can probe various statements by politicians and other opinion leaders. Such services are increasingly common in other countries, and it is heartening to know Sri Lanka’s first fact-checking service will soon be operational.

Only a multi-pronged, concerted effort can stall our society’s collective sleep walking to the tune of fake news.

(Science writer and new media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG. He is an Internet Governance Fellow.)