Fake News and Disinformation: Twin Plagues of Our Modern Day!

Having spent decades observing and participating in the media industry, I’ve seen the landscape evolve dramatically. Today, an alarming development looms: the rise of “Fake News” and “Disinformation.” These twin plagues threaten the integrity of our information ecosystem, eroding trust, and destabilizing societies.

“Fake News” refers to false stories, often sensational, disseminated under the guise of news reporting. This term, popularized during the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, has roots in the invention of print. For example, in the 19th century, American newspapers commonly engaged in “yellow journalism” – using sensational headlines and dubious content to attract readers.

Sensational headlines | "WILL IT EVER STOP RAINING?" The ans… | FlickrPHOTO CAPTION: From Yellow Journalism to Fake News: A throwback to sensational headlines and unreliable reporting, revealing the origins of today’s ‘Fake News’ phenomenon. PhotoImagem source.

“Disinformation,” on the other hand, is the intentional spread of false information with the motive to deceive. A classic instance of disinformation is the case of the “Zinoviev letter” in the U.K. in 1924, a forged document suggesting British communists were planning a revolution, thereby influencing the General Election.

These two intertwined issues are subtly undermining the fabric of our society. They distort our understanding of reality, impair informed decision-making, and exacerbate social and political divides.

Let’s consider specific instances of these issues.

During the 2016 U.S. election, a piece of fake news alleging that a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. was a front for a child-trafficking ring led to an armed confrontation – an event dubbed “Pizzagate.” Here, we see how fake news can breed fear and even incite violence.

On the disinformation front, Russia’s interference in the same 2016 election illustrates the issue on a grand scale. The Russian Internet Research Agency propagated divisive content on social media, influencing American voters, as concluded by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Closer to home, in the Caribbean, we’ve seen fake news sully public health efforts. During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, false reports about vaccine side effects spread across social media in Trinidad and Tobago, exacerbating vaccine hesitancy. There have also been cases of people claiming to have severe side effects after receiving the Pfizer vaccine in Trinidad and Tobago. Still, there is no evidence that these claims are true or related to the vaccine. There was also a widely circulated claim by the rapper Nicki Minaj that her cousin’s friend became impotent after getting vaccinated, but this was dismissed by the health minister of Trinidad and Tobago as a false claim. These kinds of stories can spread fear and misinformation among people who are already hesitant about getting vaccinated and undermine the efforts of health authorities to protect the population from covid-19.

Moreover, disinformation campaigns clouded the political climate in the recent Guyana elections, where accusations of rigged elections were based on unverified evidence led to political unrest and delayed results announcement.

So, how do we combat these twin plagues?

Right-wing media used violent rhetoric to sow disinformation in 2020 ...PHOTO CAPTION: Disinformation’s Fallout: Tucker Carlson, once the face of FOX News, has been dismissed after a sustained campaign of misleading his audience, highlighting the increasing accountability demanded in media today. Image source.

Critical media literacy is key. We must equip our populations with the skills to discern reliable sources from those peddling falsehoods. This involves education at all levels, from schools to community workshops.

Regulation of tech and social media companies is another avenue. They must take responsibility for their platforms’ role in spreading fake news and disinformation. Policies like flagging misleading content and sanctioning repeat offenders could help curb these issues.

Promoting transparency and accountability in journalism is crucial. Media outlets must commit to these principles, strengthening public trust in them as reliable sources of information.

Fake news and disinformation aren’t mere inconveniences of the digital age. They are severe threats to the health of our democracies and societies, and as news consumers, we must remain vigilant, discerning, and proactive in seeking truth. And as journalists and media practitioners, we must reaffirm our commitment to the core values of our craft: truth, fairness, and integrity.

Besides, in this age of rampant misinformation, remember the adage: “Truth is the first casualty of war.” Yet, we need not accept this casualty as inevitable. We can arm ourselves with knowledge, demand accountability from our information sources, and ultimately turn the tide against the twin plagues of fake news and disinformation.

black samsung android smartphone on white textilePHOTO CAPTION: Power to the Informed: Engaging critically with digital news, fact-checking, and diligent research are essential steps to deciphering the complex world and making informed decisions. It’s our best defense against fake news and disinformation. Image source.

In conclusion, the challenge ahead is not trivial.

It requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders – journalists, educators, technology companies, and news consumers. We all have a role to play in this fight, and it is a fight we must win.

The task of responsible journalism has always been to give a voice to the voiceless and hold power accountable.

Today, it also includes the fight against the propagation of false information.

As we strive for the highest standards of journalistic integrity, let us also remember to empower our readers and viewers with the tools they need to discern truth from untruth.

No longer can we afford to be passive consumers of news. We must become active participants in our information ecosystem, critical of what we consume, and aware of the platforms we use. The fight against fake news and disinformation begins with each one of us. Let’s ensure the truth is no longer the casualty but the victor.

Fake news and disinformation are indeed twin plagues of our day. But like all plagues, they can be fought, contained, and ultimately eradicated with determination and collective will. Our shared reality and our shared future depend on it.

As we take up this challenge, let us, the Caribbean and the world, say to the purveyors of falsehoods: We will not be misled. We will not be divided. And will continue to do so with a spirit of optimism, resilience, and unwavering commitment to the truth, as we stand together, informed, discerning, and resolute.

Let’s build a world where fake news and disinformation have no place. As in the words of the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

Yes! We can and will put together the pieces of our fractured information ecosystem, and in the end, it will be stronger for having been broken. It is not only our duty but also our privilege to be part of this crucial endeavor. Together, we can ensure a future where truth prevails.