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Dateline Seattle: Understanding Fake News

The emergence of so-called fake news has muddled the search for objectivity and eventually the truth. It has created an attitude that makes people believe a story to be true as long as nobody questions or challenges it. Or, in some cases, as long as the trolls – many of them are probably paid and die-hard partisans – continue to repeat the same story with increasing frequency. I must confess that at times I find myself a victim of fake news. So to educate myself, I searched the Internet to get a better understanding of what fake news is. How is it defined? What are its characteristics? How should it be countered? Enter Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines fake news as a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and or gain financially or politically often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing and internet click revenue. Even Pope Francis, sensing perhaps that fake news has moral implications, came up with his definition of what is fake in fake news: “It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.” During his homily last Maundy Thursday, Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle of Manila criticized the proliferation of fake news as contrary to God’s call for his people to uphold their mission of evangelization and urged the people to put an end to fake news.” From these definitions, one can conclude that fake news is a distortion of facts. It is disseminated to influence people’s way of thinking and sway public opinion; oftentimes, the goal is something nefarious. Yet, some people continue to believe in it as gospel truth. This is what I don’t understand. This is what makes fake news dangerous. Let me point out a few examples. Right before the US presidential election in 2016, two national headlines gripped the American electorate: “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and “Clinton Sold Weapons to ISIS.” Donald Trump must have been pleased by the headlines. Some undecided voters must have been swayed to vote for him instead of Hillary Clinton because of these headlines. But when fact-checked, the stories were determined to be fabricated. But the damaged had already been done. At the height of the siege of Marawi City by the Maute terrorist group last year, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II claimed that several opposition lawmakers had met with political leaders in Marawi City before the clashes erupted. He showed a photo of the supposed meeting which, when fact-checked, turned out to have been taken in Iloilo City in 2015. Again, in relation to the occupation of Marawi City by the Maute group, former Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Chair Loretta Ann Rosales decried the spread of false information showing her support for the Maute group. Rosales denounced the malicious information as fake. President Rodrigo Duterte must have been pleased by this “news” because it benefitted him; it was favorable to his government, but it put those who opposed his administration in bad light. The proliferation of fake news in the Philippines is at its peak. Trolls whose main task is to fabricate certain information and spread them on social media networks are like political assassins ready to pound on their targets with a vengeance. In most cases, misinformation or false stories are spread quickly through automated “bots” (software application that runs automated scripts over the internet). According to Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University, “what bots are doing is really getting this thing trending on Twitter. These bots are providing the online crowds that are providing legitimacy.” As fake information goes viral, it can be seen by the unquestioning mind as credible information. As opinion-writer Miguel Syjuco wrote in the New York Times last year, “As it has around the world, the internet in the Philippines has become a morass of fake news and conspiracy theories, harassment and bullying. This has muddied public discourse and cultivated a populist attitude toward democracy. What is true, or legal, is no longer important as long as the majority supports it. Responsibility has been discarded for partisanship.” Sadly, fake news is here to stay because it serves a purpose. Besides, some people are by nature dishonest. What can we do to combat fake news? The International Federation of Library Association (IFLA) suggests several steps that people can do to combat fake news: consider the source (to understand its mission and purpose); read beyond the headline (to understand the whole story); check the authors (to see if they are real and credible); assess the supporting sources (to ensure they support the claims); check the date of publication (to see if the story is relevant and up to date); ask if it is a joke (to determine if it is meant to be satire); review your own biases (to see if they are affecting your judgement); and ask experts (to get confirmation from independent people with knowledge). And, if I may add, there is no substitute for being discerning, vigilant and developing critical thinking skills.

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