In 2009, a vernacular daily in Bangladesh made international headlines by republishing a report of The Onion – the famous (or notorious) satirical publication – that the Apollo moon landing had been faked.
“We thought it was true, so we printed it without checking,” the then associate editor of the paper confessed to The Time magazine. The paper registered an apology and retraction afterwards. But they were unlucky; now many get away with even more serious blunders.
The fact however is that such blunders, under the euphemised title ‘fake news’, isn’t going away any time soon – or ever for that matter. What we are now calling 'fake news' – misinformation that people fall for – is nothing new. What is new is the premise of the conversation about fake news that has blossomed since the advent of the internet and online news portals.
Also, just because fake news isn’t new, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about it. Democratic systems are designed in order to facilitate the participation of an informed populace — and the spreading of misinformation affects this.
These days it has become far too easy to create a network of fake sites and fake social media accounts that enable those with questionable ethics to make money or sway political opinions of gullible and naïve individuals online.
Unfortunately, we see such ludicrous stories from those questionable websites going viral all too often. Especially, the emergence of social media has made it all too easy to disseminate false information, but in the process, quite a large number of people are fed with dangerous misinformation.
Just because fake news isn’t new, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about it
It would certainly help, though, if legitimate mainstream sites didn’t greedily trade their reputation and credibility for a few bucks by allowing these scam and propaganda posts on their websites.
Also social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – the list goes on – all have a responsibility to deal with the fake news phenomenon. Many experts concerned believe that if we rely on the government to makes laws to combat what it thinks is fake news, we’re going down a slippery slope.
It will create controversy because the government legislation could lead to undue accusations against real news stories in which the subject of a story doesn’t like what’s written. It’s ripe for abuse and corruption.
How to deal with it?
So now, the real question is how we are going to actually define and combat the problem?
First of all, we have to understand that 'fake news' has no specific legal meaning. It is a broad term used in social networks and the media to describe untrue information of all kind. Legally speaking, it is important to differentiate.
Untrue factual allegations have been subject to numerous court proceedings for decades now all over the world including Bangladesh. They relate to untrue information about a specific person. Unlike the expression of opinion, which is largely protected by the constitutional freedoms of expression and press, an individual may of course take legal action against false or not proven factual allegations.
Fake news, which does indeed require further regulation is false information used for political propaganda. In this case, false allegations in relation to political events may be made on purpose to influence the political mood of the people.
Unfortunately, under the present legal system of many countries including Bangladesh, such false news can hardly be challenged legally, which is why politicians and experts see potential new regulations as necessary. In these cases, a kind of a “Truth Commission” may be established to investigate the contents of such information and, in case of false allegations, take steps against the propagator.
However, if the mainstream media fails to provide the desired credibility and truthfulness, the whole point of having a rigorous press becomes invalid. The vacuum of trust created by this phenomenon may ultimately result in public apathy towards press integrity.