Fake news can be buried when the public trusts mainstream journalism

Hannah Giron Daygo

Real news is becoming less reliable and less relevant in the digital age. Social media has become a major player in this, making it easier to get stories to become ‘trending’ within a few minutes, causing and spreading more misinformation and disinformation to the public. Hence, this makes journalism less reliable, as most people these days would believe social media is the “news” and journalism is either questioned or worse not trusted. For years, journalism served the public by providing truth and shaping public opinion. However, since the pandemic emerged and Coronavirus spread, at the same time the virus of spreading disinformation became prominent, causing journalism to be vulnerable to challenges.

Currently, there are two principal challenges facing news: fake news and social media. It is an era where fake news are becoming more transparent, even harder to recognise because of social media. The birth of social media also challenges the credibility of journalism as social media posts are likely to be believed rather than real news. It is also an era where journalists are mocked instead of being believed. In addition, this essay will also show how journalists in this age are currently facing these principal challenges, ensuring that the purpose of journalism serving the truth is maintained as its sole focus and will never be lost. 

Fake News is becoming transparent

It is a principal challenge that fake news is becoming more transparent and harder to recognise. Since the pandemic started, most people around the globe concentrated their world through online and technology. Most workers were working from home and students started their online classes. In some sense, it is easier to get things done as people did not need to go away from their home. However, it is also where people are vulnerable to fake news as the rise of the pandemic, was also the rise of fake news. With more fake news circulating online, this buries the real news, causing to cloud the public’s thoughts and opinions. Thus, opinions can be shaped differently, which affects journalism and society itself. According to Maxwell McCombs, “the media does not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.”

The algorithm of social media can be very dangerous to the public, as the algorithm, for example, with TikTok, is not the same for everyone. This can lead to either poisoning the mind or recognising that fake news is fake news. An example of that is the pandemic itself, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the first person to have COVID-19, interpretations of the news expanded. According to Smriti Mallapaty, “it was an office worker in Wuhan with no recent travel history, who began showing symptoms on 8 December 2019″. Just a reminder that this was real news, truth being published by a reliable organisation and by a trusted news website. 

In spite of this truth, for some people, there are versions of the truth. As Kovach and Rosenstiel said, truth isn’t just like a “bread dough that rises,” but a “stalactite” that grows “drop by drop over time”. It illustrates that truth is not always what it seems, especially in the digital era when it can be upgraded, twisted, and even revised. Hence, many people experienced anti-Asian hate crime after this news broke, as people disseminated fake news that Asians carried Coronavirus. This targets the people with a history of prejudice against Asians and spreads it to other people, through social media. The numbers, shown by the AAPI report said that there had been “3,795 incidents received by the Stop AAPI Hate reporting centre from March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021.”

Fake news causes more harm

The growth of social media like Facebook, sometimes intentionally and unintentionally causes harm through posts. Fake news can also initiate hate crimes.  According to the “type of “age information disorder,” written by Claire Wardle under the Verification Handbook for Disinformation and Media manipulation, this type of fake news is called as “fabricated content,” where the content is 100% fabricated and “designed to deceive and do harm.”

Fake news causes more harm as it spreads. Think of fake news as a snowball on top of a mountain, the mountain could be social media. It’s a place for people to enjoy their time. The problem is, when the snowstorm arrives, just like fake news triggered by trolls, it rolls down, growing bigger and bigger, then eroding down to the public. It may be obvious to some people that this is a threat, and therefore they protect themselves from misinformation. Nevertheless, this affects everyone as well as harms the public and society.

A democratic society relies heavily on journalism. “Journalism provide the information on which citizens will be able to judge between competing candidates and parties.” As an example, during elections, journalists can question candidates about their strengths and weaknesses, and they provide this information to the public so they can choose the right candidate.  This shows that journalists are “key contributors” to a democratic society. They can shape public opinion by producing credible news. With the rise of social media, the journalists’ job to serve the public with truth is being challenged. Another example of this can be seen during elections. The Philippine government during the campaign period for the presidency is one example. 

Two of the 10 candidates running for the presidency have created public opinion. The first was the former Vice President (VP) of the Philippines, Leni Robredo, and the second was Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. In this example, journalism was a key contributor to getting to know their history in politics. Former VP Robredo was known for her clean track record with her six years of work as Vice President. It was reported by Manila Bulletin, that she ended “her six-year term with a bang after the Office of the Vice President (OVP) received an unqualified opinion, the highest audit rating given to a government agency, for the fourth straight year from the Commission on Audit (COA).” This shows her clean public service for the last six years. 

On the other hand, it is known by the world about Marcoses’ political history. According to the article reported by ABC news, that “the true legacy of Marcos Sr’s infrastructure binge was a mountain of debt that ballooned from $843 million when he took office in 1965 to over $39 billion by the time he was deposed”. Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was also known as a dictator when he implemented the “Martial Law” for 14 years starting in 1972. During this period, the Filipinos suffered brutally from the hands of the military, “over 50,000 people had been arrested and detained under martial law from 1972-1975; those arrested included church workers, human rights defenders, legal aid lawyers, labour leaders and journalists,” (Five things to know about Martial Law in the Philippines, 2022). And because of that fact, it created public opinion and his presidency was overturned during “The People Power Revolution” in the Philippines, in 1986. 

Combating Fake News

However, history and facts published by credible journalists are now tarnished by social media. Going back to how the algorithm works, this truth wasn’t the same for the other side.  For the victims and survivors of Martial Law, this exists for them and for them it is the truth. But, since disinformation exists, most of the Marcos supporters believe that it was “the Golden era” during the Martial Law. This type of story can be seen from Facebook posts made by Marcos’s supporters. “For some Filipinos, Facebook is their only source of news.” Most of them also believe that the victims who suffered from Martial Law were “communists” not Filipinos crying for freedom against dictatorship. This is why algorithms are very dangerous in the age of social media. Posts on Facebook are programmed to attract the viewers it needs, as implied by Lippmann’s “Hypodermic Needle Theory,” just as whatever Marcoses supporters see on Facebook is injected into their heads and lives out of it. It is these types of fake news that challenge news since it revises history. Hence, not only is this a threat to journalism and history, but also to the Philippines as a whole.

“An extension of the information function of political journalism in a democracy is the role of critical scrutiny over the powerful…This is the watchdog role of a journalist,” this means that to combat fake news in an era of social media is act as a mediator, a representative of the public to ask questions and to represent the truth. According to “The Handbook of Journalism Studies,” in a journalism perspective it is “to stand between the public and the political elite and ensure the voice of the people can be heard in the democratic process.”

CEO of Rappler and Nobel Prize winner, Maria Ressa is an example of a journalist standing for the truth amidst the threat to press freedom. She and her team are a group of fact checkers combating fake news that are circulating online. With Rappler, they create content by researching facts and publishing it to the masses. However, since the former president Rodrigo Duterte won the elections in 2016, she and her team have been targeted in cases of cyber libel. However, this doesn’t stop her from being a journalist and protecting press freedom. In her interview with Ravi Agrawal, she said: “You move against freedom of the press, and we will call you out every single time. Otherwise, it’s death by a thousand cuts for democracy.”

Combating fake news begins with empowering good journalism. According to the book Misunderstanding News Audiences, Seven Myths of the Social Media Era, a “well-funded, responsible, independent, news journalism and public service media is the best antidote to fake news.” Since the pandemic began, most people have gone online, which means that journalism needs to evolve from the traditional style that we are used to. The new generation is less likely to buy traditional newspapers, but journalism can now also be accessed through the websites of these publications. The popularity of TikTok has been increasing lately, and news companies we normally see broadcast live on our television sets have also started broadcasting live on TikTok. This only serves to show that the more journalism is publicly advertised, the more the public trusts journalism. Thus, fake news can be buried when the public trusts mainstream journalism and public service media. By training journalists to question, to gatekeep, and represent the voiceless, journalism’s sole mission of serving truth is maintained and preserved.

Hannah Giron Daygo

Photo by Jorge Franganillo on Unsplash