Insight | Misinformed citizens are a peril to democracy

Paulo Barbosa

The term “fake news” has been a trending expression since the new US president was elected.

Former Agence France-Presse editor-in-chief Eric Wishart, who now works on special projects for the agency’s global news management, was in Macau last month to attend a conference organized by the Macau Portuguese and English Press Association. He tried to answer a pertinent question: Why is fake news such a big issue now?

Wishart, who is also a scholar based in Hong Kong, defined fake news as “fabricated content presented as legitimate news with an intent to deceive” and noted that social media has been the driving force behind the phenomenon.

As he illustrated, the “fake news” emergence got to a point where Time magazine made the “Is Truth Dead?” cover, replicating a famous Time cover: “Is God Dead?” issued in 1966.

During the conference held at the Military Club, the veteran journalist proceeded by exhibiting the headlines of several US tabloids that claimed, for example, that then-presidential candidate Hilary Clinton was fighting cancer or that she had suffered two stokes.

Explaining that “in it’s purest form fake news is fabricated,” Wishart said that it could also take subtler forms by providing false context, manipulated content or even “impostor content” (when genuine sources are impersonated).

Many argue that governments should legislate against fake news or even censor the Internet (which is already being done in several jurisdictions). I disagree because such an attempt inevitably ends up by limiting freedom of speech and, thus, democracy.

There are libel laws for those who feel defamed. Politicians and public figures must not be oversensitive about this new reality. They should learn to cope with unfair criticism as part of their job. What they shouldn’t do is turn journalists into public enemy number one and rebuke legitimate reports that they dislike as fake news. That’s reckless.

Fake news and “alternative facts” are here to stay. What needs to be done to limit their impact is to educate the youth to use social media and to value reliable sources of information, such as editorial contents produced by professional journalists and trustworthy media organizations.

The crucial questions are: Where will the younger generations (and, by the way, the US president) gather their information from? Facebook? Dishonest cable TV channels and tabloids? Government mouthpieces? There is a multitude of sources available, but they are not worth the same. Well-informed people know that to be an indisputable fact.

The point, Wishart said, is that there are people who “will believe what they want to believe,” presenting revisionist views and always believing hoaxes: The earth is square, dinosaurs didn’t exist, the Holocaust is a fabrication, the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was executed by the US government, vaccines are a way to sterilize poor people and keep the global population down. The absurd list could go on endlessly.

Education is key. The decline of public education systems in developed countries and the failure to raise educational standards in less developed ones is generating a population of misinformed citizens.

Those misinformed citizens are always a peril to democracies, wherever they still exist. As Wishart put it, “fake news is real and can be dangerous.”

Categories Opinion