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Fake News versus Real Politics: How do we tackle such a huge threat to democracy?

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A panel of experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos discuss fake news, its inherent threats, and possible solutions

Anna Freeman

03 Mayo 2018 11:00

It’s everywhere. When you log onto Facebook. On the TV. It was word of the year in 2017. US President Donald Trump devised an awards list dedicated to it: Fake news. The scourge of democracies and powerful weapon of choice for dirty politics.

Given the sharp rise in attention given to the fake news phenomenon since the 2016 US election, it seemed only right that The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, addressed its inherent dangers and possible solutions. BBC presenter Zeinab Badawi and BBC World brought together some of the leading players in media to discuss fake news’s many faces. Badawi was joined by Joseph Kahn, managing editor of the The New York Times; Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia; Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of Pakistan People’s Party; and Anna Belkina, deputy editor-in-chief of Russia Today.

Here’s everything that went down during this politcally-charged and at times heated debate about a very modern plague on truth.

How useful is the term ‘fake news’?

Kahn: ‘The phenomenon of maliciously created form of news does need to be combatted. But it’s someone like Trump’s definition of fake news that is the real problem, because his accusation of fake news is actually fake. It’s not journalism that possibly makes mistakes and then own up to the errors, which is good journalistic practice. Calling it fake news is a smear. He is making it a weaponised term.’

Bhutto Zardari: ‘With Trump it is particularly dangerous; to have a leader of a democratic country undermining free press is very concerning. The term demonises the press. It is different in Pakistan, though. News media are more commercialised in developing countries, so non-traditional platforms can be a source of credible news.’

Wales: ‘Wikipedia is diligen and passionate about getting it right with what is fake news and what is not. We have strong standards about reliable sources and correcting mistakes. Doing serious journalism is making mistakes and then correcting them. Fake news doesn't make it into Wikipedia because they are sophisticated about sources.’

Belkina: ‘Russia is accused of weaponising information. Those accusations are false. Russia Today has been a target of false information spread about it. (Emmanuel) Macron’s campaign said RT has spread information about the candidate, but they have failed to provide a single example. We are conflating propaganda and fake news, which are different. At RT we are scrutinising things differently.’

Wales: It’s outright lies at RT. It is overwhelming. Serious people don’t say fake news is news I disagree with. It’s about basic journalistic standards.’

Kahn: ‘There is a difference between propaganda and spin for a political purpose which has a basis in fact but with the purpose to spin the facts and actual fake news. There is a spectrum between propaganda and spin, and complete lies.’

Belkina: ‘The errors that RT have made we have addressed, but when it comes to alternative voices people want to suppress those voices.’

How much danger does fake news pose to democracy? And who should respond to the phenomenon?

Kahn: ‘I think it is a danger. The hyper-partisanship we have produces the fake news phenomenon. We lead identity-based political lives where people are affiliating with certain news and information. I don’t think fake news is the cause of the problem, but the proliferation of fake news is a symptom of the decline of shared identity and shared sense of truth.’

Belkina: ‘People might be exposed to fake news, but in the grand scheme of things they still make their political decisions on the basis of factual reporting.’

Wales: ‘People’s trust of news coming from social media is declining. But, if people share a fake story online they think it is interesting enough or believable enough to share it.’

Belkina: ‘It will continue until the mainstream media takes a more critical look at why this environment was created in the first place, and to not discourage alternative voices from the news discourse.’

Kahn: ‘A large part of the reading public want information that is confirmation of their biases and political beliefs. I disagree that the mainstream media are to blame. The mainstream media does its best to improve itself. We are committed to fact-based journalism.’

Is the over dependence of media on advertising and advertising technology an existential threat to the democratic discourse?

Wales: ‘The advertising has been destructive for journalism. But it is enncouraging to see the surge in digital-only subscriptions to newspapers like NYT because people realise they need to pay for good journalism.’

Bhutto Zardari: ‘In Pakistan, with the commercialisation of media and big industries, what is produced on TV is more acting, spin, propaganda and sensationalism, and the credible journalists can't make ends meet.’

Wales: ‘Facebook is really interesting. On the one hand, serious publishers should be happy that if Facebook changes its business model it won’t be all clickbait articles that get traffic, but there is a worry that there will be less traffic overall. But it needs to happen because if people begin to feel like they are getting nonsense, then they will stop using facebook as much. The platforms need to take this seriously. They have not been doing enough and their brands are being tarnished.’

Kahn: ‘Facebook is in the grips of a real dilemma. They do not want to be reclassified as a publisher that takes responsibility for its users. They would need to hire every available person in the world to monitor the content. It is impossible for their business model to become a publisher. But they are feeling the pressure that publishers are feeling because of malicious fake news. A change in algorithm is them taking a step back. They want to be a social media site.’

Belkina: ‘One danger is to avoid is not putting three American platforms as world sensors. They should not be deciding that one point of view is more valid than others and become de facto sensors.’

How does regulation quash freedom of speech?

Bhutto Zardari: ‘There is a fear of undermining the freedom of the press in new democracies where authoritarianism is very possible. There are elections in Pakistan, and I do not trust my state to be regulating news. We also need to look at education. We need to relook at how we are teaching our children; we are not taught about journalism in school, and how to check for bias etc.’

Annabel: ‘I think a lot of the solution lies with the news community holding each other accountable. A real honest approach to mistakes and being constructive.’

Kahn: ‘I have little-to-no faith in government regulation in combating fake news. What will work is better news, quality news, better traction to good news, and more information out there to combat fake news.’

Wales: ‘Strong regulation is dangerous. You need the independence of journalism.’

To watch the panel discussion, click here.

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