02. Journalists vs fake news /
Did you know that salt water can treat the symptoms of Covid-19? Simply take a mouthful of salt water – tilt your head back to allow the water to flow to the back of your throat – then open your mouth, breathe in and say ‘ah’. Repeat this once and the whole procedure three to five times.
This is the sort of thing you could read in English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese when the pandemic first plunged the world into crisis. Shared millions of times, this method can help soothe a sore throat but it has no effect on Covid-19.
This is a classic case of misinformation that appears to be true because the information is based on reality but the facts are taken out of context.
This is where fact-checking is essential: contextualise information, with the help of experts if necessary, before spreading our verified news.
Without wanting to sound arrogant, if it reaches the right people, we can save lives.
Our role as journalists is to safeguard the truth as much as possible. In fact, it is the first duty of news professionals according to the Munich Declaration, a fundamental text on the ethical responsibilities of journalists:
‘Respect the truth no matter what consequences it may bring about to them, and this is because it is the right of the public to know the truth.’
But if the public has the right to know the truth, it is our duty to let them know when they are misled by falsehoods. Combating the spread of misinformation is now part of our mission as journalists. But how did it come to this?
Rumours are nothing new. In the Middle Ages, all over Europe, Jews were accused of well poisoning, resulting in massacres and pogroms. With the invention of printing, there was a new breeding ground for false information. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 gave rise to pamphlets containing false information, such as the claim that survivors owed their lives to apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, angered by such explanations, made the fight against religious misinformation one of his pet issues. The emergence of the modern press in the early nineteenth century obviously brought with it false information on an even greater scale. In 1835, the New York Sun tabloid newspaper published the Great Moon Hoax about the supposed existence of extra-terrestrial life on the Moon. By the mid-nineteenth century it had become the most widely read newspaper in America. Radio then television gave even more impact to misinformation.
But it is with the advent of social media sites and the possibility for everyone to spread information, that good journalism has been seriously undermined.
Accuracy, fact-checking, objectivity: so many criteria that the recommendation algorithms behind Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube ignore. At the same time, fake news has mutated into false information created specifically to manipulate the maximum number of citizens. Although its impact on elections has not yet been proved, it is regularly cited by some leaders as the reason for their failure. The impact of the spread of false information is considerable. It can spark diplomatic crises, such as the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2017. This was triggered by a fake report supposedly from Qatar’s state news agency. Sometimes misinformation can lead to tragedy, as in Myanmar, where hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority has been fuelled in recent years thanks to the echo chamber that is Facebook.
Accused of destroying our societies, facilitating the election of dictators and stoking hatred between communities, this false information which stems from humanity’s desire to find simple explanations for complex situations does have an antidote: fact-checking! And the poison is an antidote too: thanks to the Internet, it is possible to do this if you have knowledge of a few tools.
This is your job as journalists, and it is particularly difficult because you must first spot false information then quickly check it before you can publish your verified article.
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