A man looks out of his home next to a poster urging the public not to participate in spreading fake news in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo: AFP)
To combat fake news and other forms of disinformation, the best arsenal is Media and Information Education (MIL). Unlike legality, MIL relies directly on user awareness. If other solutions are not without interest, their shortcomings quickly appear.
The ever-increasing use of social media websites and related applications, coupled with the decline of more traditional news sources over the past decade, has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in disinformation online.
The Covid-19 pandemic crisis has seen a drastic increase in this phenomenon and has generated what the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed an “infodemic”.
Taiwan provides an excellent example of an illegal fight against disinformation, and the “infodemic” in particular. Instead of passing “fake news” legislation, the government is using transparent, readable, prompt and independent fact-checking.
Based on the principles of “quick, fair and fun,” Taiwan recognizes that responses to counter-disinformation have the most impact when they are made within an hour of the disinformation being spread.
The responses, which usually come in the form of memes and pictures, are designed to grab attention first, before introducing facts that contradict the false information. Taiwan’s experience shows that in the face of an infodemic, a confident and founded government, associated with informed citizens, is the best defense.
The infodemic thrives in the absence of credible and transparent information. The latter situation arose in Japan, for example. Under the Covid-19 (SOE) state of emergency, journalists’ access to government press conferences has narrowed.
However, governments have the highest ethical and legal responsibility to ensure that citizens have access to accurate and reliable information. Accordingly, a healthy and independent media environment is necessary to prevent government-run sources of information from turning into state propaganda.
An effective IME urges citizens to recognize potentially problematic sources of information early. The latter includes the recognition of “fact-checking” agencies set up by several governments.
For example, Malaysia’s Ministry of Communication and Multimedia established Sebenarnya.my in 2017. However, critics immediately pointed out that the fact-checking website was promoting the government’s version of the truth and lacking in ‘objectivity. The risk is that the government’s so-called “fact-checking” is just a way to stifle criticism. MIL provides the necessary critical thinking skills that inspire citizens to recognize credible and independent sources of information.
Civil society organizations such as Mafindo in Indonesia have sought to counter this risk by forming independent fact-checking networks. These offer citizens a portal to verify the information they read online and report questionable information. However, most of these investigative organizations suffer from insufficient funding and human resources, preventing them from sifting through the amount of information being shared every second on the internet and social media.
Technology companies have recently created tools and processes for users to report harmful content. As with fact-checking, however, their responses are logically responsive, removing content that has been flagged. By the time the content is removed from the platform, it has been shared widely and may already be out of control.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook opened a Covid-19 information center and automatically added a warning link to any post mentioning Covid-19. While this systematic redirection to reliable information is laudable, its blind targeting quickly rendered it ineffective as users grew accustomed to the warning.
A reliable and usable MIL requires conveying a minimal understanding of the technologies deployed by technology companies, especially new technologies such as artificial intelligence and algorithms, to attract citizens to preferred content and to bogus and deceptive content that is detrimental – all in the name of advertising revenue and data collection.
Google has claimed to fight against fake news by raising quality journalism on their platforms: their search engine ranks the results of news queries by relevance and authority. The problem is, quality, time-consuming journalism, including investigative journalism, is unprofitable and has fallen prey to large for-profit media companies.
Additionally, while fact-checking initiatives are hampered by the dissemination of fake news in many languages, MIL allows any media user to recognize and avoid fake news. In South Korea, after-school programs and youth centers dedicated to different aspects of media and information literacy are extremely common, and curriculum reforms since 2007 are gradually incorporating elements of MIL. In contrast, Southeast Asia appears to be lagging behind in MIL promotion and training.
To meet the global need for media literacy, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has produced tools ranging from a country assessment framework and policy recommendations to a teaching program and course materials.
Effective use and ownership of these MIL tools by Southeast Asian states would be a victory in the fight against disinformation. Additionally, the advancement of free speech and democracy depends on a media-savvy audience who can easily detect and defeat disinformation.
Each of the solutions to disinformation has a role to play and none should be abandoned. Nevertheless, the most effective weapon against disinformation remains media education, including digital literacy, which should not only be promoted through local initiatives of CSOs and specialized centers, but above all be integrated. as a central element of formal education in each country.