Fake news is a real threat and demonstrates an absurd paradox. Never before has humanity had access to so much information in such abundance and at such speed as today. At the same time, we have never had so many reasons to distrust so much of the news that we receive in the torrent of content to which we are constantly connected.
False reports have always existed. But in recent years, their spread, along with the verisimilitude that they acquire in important segments of contemporary societies, has multiplied, thanks to social media. The communication platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, and, with other types of social media, networks like WhatsApp and Telegram, are accessible to anyone. The virtues of those platforms are that accessibility, and their visual organization. Content of any type is shared on them, and, of course, so are lies.
Increasingly, people receive information about public issues through social media. The dependence of the professional communications media on social media to reach readers with at least a few clicks that allow them to survive in this ocean of differing accounts and information that is the internet demonstrates the crisis facing journalism. The proliferation of tweets and portals that link to articles in conventional media confers on that content a distribution that they would not have by any other means, but deprives readers of the context and ranking that the news receives in the original media.
Fake news prospers when it finds a public predisposed to believe it. On social media, we build environments made up of people who share our prejudices, so that news that coincides with those affinities has a greater chance of being shared and thus authenticated than information that does not reinforce the reader’s convictions. The promoters of fake news take advantage of this predisposition to accept versions that support existing beliefs or assumptions, independent of the accuracy of the information.
An article published on March 9 in Science magazine by professor David M. J. Lazer of Northeastern University in Boston and 15 other scholars underlines the necessity of understanding fake news as a phenomenon that is eroding the mechanisms that allow people to find out about public issues. “Fake news”—they explain – is “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent. Fake-news outlets, in turn, lack the news media's editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information. Fake news overlaps with other information disorders, such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people).”
Among the authors of this article are Michael Schudson of Columbia University, author of one of the most relevant studies about the history of the American press, and Cass R. Sunstein of Harvard University, whose “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media” is one of the most thought-provoking books in the discussion about fake news.
Any group or entity interested in confusing, and eventually supporting or eroding a candidate or organization, can spread fake news. During the most important electoral processes of the recent years held in dozens of countries, lies that are presented as authentic have circulated in social media. In various cases, there is evidence that the Russian government has deliberately spread that type of information. More than a year ago, Facebook started a program to identify fake news with the support of groups of journalists in about 20 countries. Those news professionals included people with more experience and resources with which they can investigate and, where relevant, point out a fake story. In that project, there were news verification groups in Argentina, the United States, Italy and Peru, but none in Mexico.
Nevertheless, the September earthquake struck Mexico City, and several hundred volunteers dedicated themselves to review the many stories that spread through social media, providing authenticity to the requests for assistance and truthful information. #Verificado19S was a citizen effort, supported by groups of reporters and activists, that processed more than 20,000 pieces of information in the days after the earthquake.
From that experience, the digital magazine Animal Político, led by the journalist Daniel Moreno, together with other publications and organizations, was launched at www.verificado.mx with the collaboration of journalists from more than 60 media outlets. This is an effort that specifically, locates and identifies fake news regarding the election process. The site explains: “With more than 10,000 candidates traveling around the country and asking for our vote, we will not just listen to fake news. Also promises, denunciations, criticism of all kinds. Worse: there will be promises that are impossible to fulfill, baseless attacks, criticism on the basis of mistaken facts for the purpose of deceiving the voter. #Verificado2018 seeks to confront these two phenomena: on one side, fake news; on the other, the promises which are impossible to carry out or the baseless criticisms. And it wants to confront them with journalism.”
That proposal of Animal Político, together with Newsweek in Spanish, Pop Up News and AJ+Spanish, is supported by Facebook, Google and Twitter, and will count on the resources of Mexicans Against Corruption, as well as the Open Society and Oxfam Foundations. The trajectory of the journalists who are driving this initiative forward and who gathered this weekend for a workshop on fake news will help this work have credibility. It will be essential, of course, that they work with the greatest transparency, and that in carrying out their duties, there be no bias either for or against any political option.
In other countries, fake news arises and is disseminated amidst the flow of information provided by professional media that function independently and which have credibility. In Mexico, the environment is more complex and difficult. Our media outlets, many of which lack autonomy from the state and from corporate interests, suffer a credibility deficit that, in general, they have not made an effort to resolve. In that context, the most suspicious sectors of society that have a special predisposition to believe fake news. Lies always circulate with greater ease in the context of confusion and polarization.
#Verificado2018 can help solidify the confidence of society in the media, as well as in the professional work of journalists. The work of this group must be of the greatest interest to the media companies, and, on the other hand, for the political parties and candidates that stake their chances on the strengthening of democracy — which is to say, that stand for a political competition without deception.
Media content never has linear or fatal consequences. The consequences of fake news are not always the same. People tend to remember news independently of the way in which they encountered it. The news that is remembered in the simplest way, and that then is considered true, is the news that coincides with the preferences and beliefs of its recipients. It is impossible to make generalizations regarding this matter because whatever process of assimilating information exists between individuals, media content is always accepted, or not, taking into account the context of each person. But with fake news, it can happen that the efforts to verify and refute fake news just give it greater visibility. The previously cited article in Science warns: “There is thus a risk that repeating false information, even in a fact-checking context, may increase an individual's likelihood of accepting it as true.”
That is one of the dilemmas that #Verificado2018 will have to assess, as well as the media which share the duty of reviewing and check fake news. Independent of each person’s political preferences and convictions, it is essential that we be able to discuss and decide on the basis of the facts, and not on assumptions and fabrications. It is a question of protecting and facilitating in this way the public deliberation that is essential and irreplaceable as a constituent element of democracy.