Don’t blame it on technology: if our world today is in such an ill-informed state, it is not due to mysterious inhuman forces. It can all be traced back to us, the people.
It is curious that we only started using this concept less than half a decade ago. This is a term that became colloquial only during the Trump era, for obvious reasons – the president addresses the subject constantly. Actually, he tweeted the term more than 450 times (and counting). Click here in case you need further proof.
But fake news have been around since communication was invented, which is to say, since humanity’s inception. More even so, and according to many academicians, they are deeply rooted in American Journalism. They can be traced as far back as 1690, when British officials closed down the first North American newspaper because it printed fabricated information. During the nineteenth century, newspapers would “tailor” their descriptions of actual events to suit their respective audiences. Columbia University Professor Andie Tucher is a fake news historian, and has been researching the subject for many years now. She describes how, in the 1800’s, two major NYC newspapers would dramatically diverge in their coverage of the same case: “They both looked at the same crime and had entirely different interpretations based on what they thought their readers would prefer to hear.” Different perspectives for divergent audiences – a marketing strategy that could only lead to the community’s misinformation.
Technology accelerated things for fake news, as it enhanced the whole news production, distribution and reproduction circuit. However, and as technology progresses, the communication production process became less and less unidirectional.
A century ago, media giants would ‘feed’ the people information. To trust it, well, it was up to the people – the veritability of the content is always at the consumer’s discretion. However, checking and cross-checking facts proved impossible for the common citizen some fifty years ago. Today, the fact-checking tools are right there: all you need is a decent Internet connection. To clear the air, even some fact-checking journalistic ventures have emerged along the past decade. In Argentina, Chequeado.com was the first non-profit website entirely devoted to news cross-checking. Its inspiration? American sites like FactCheck.org and Politifact.
Another interesting initiative against false news is the International Fact-Checking Day, which is celebrated every April 2nd. Its hashtag, #FactcheckingDay , provides the opportunity to join the debate and learn critical thinking tools.
It is true, the amount of fake news in 2019 is overwhelming – but so can be the people’s responsiveness…
…which is usually underestimated. Fake news can be fought, or at least resisted. It is un uphill battle, but it can and must be done. How? Well, besides your working Wi-Fi, you’ll need something else: critical thinking.
There is a word for those people whose social commitment starts and finishes with signing a change.org petition: slacktivism. According to Wikipedia, it pejoratively describes
“feel-good measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.”
Every action has a meaning and an impact, of course. Although the scopes of adding a pink ribbon to your Facebook avatar to raise breast cancer awareness are, to say the least, modest. But desktop activism is not utterly lost – not at all. It is not costless either, especially in countries like China where the Internet is closely monitored by the government. Desktop activism does not replace traditional demonstrations, but is the weapon of choice against fake news.
Fake news feed on passivity. As my aunt would say, if you’re not part of the solution…you’re part of the problem. Social media is the perfect breeding ground for this kind of (mis) information, but it doesn’t have to be. Every platform allows the user to report misleading posts, and the system works quite well. Without getting to that extent, it is always possible to join the conversation stating the correct facts when available. This small deed of desktop activism, not just slacktivism, is making democracy stronger already.
Besides, if 90% of the fake news situation is originated online…why should we deal with it offline?
Social media platforms are showing different degrees of concern (that range from mild to nonexistent) regarding fake news…which is the least they can do after events like the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, just to name the most resonant.
Facebook has recently updated its ‘Why Am I Seeing This?’ Ad Info with more specific detail: additional insight on how each advertiser has chosen to target you. This feature will be crucial during electionary years, when users are bombarded by political advertising of “mysterious” origins.
Facebook has also developed ‘Custom Audiences’, a tool that works two ways: while helping advertisers target users that already use their products, it protects users from spam (advertisers they have never heard of). However, marketing specialist and blogger Preetish Panda claims that the feature is not working properly. Furthermore, the author exhorts Facebook users to make use of the “Download Your Information” feature also provided by the app. Finding out what the social media platform knows about the user is not a paranoid act: it is the act of a conscious digital citizenship. Among the data Facebook users may find in this section, there is an ‘ads’ folder containing the list of companies that uploaded the user contact information to Facebook’s ad platform.
Fake news are a threat to freedom – of both speech and market – and to democracy, especially during election years. It is both our duty and our privilege to intervene, because we now have the tools to do so. It may sound like ant work, but researching and reporting fake news is the key to level up democracy.
The repeal of inaccurate or misleading information is a war to be fought from your couch. And there is nothing wrong with it.