Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Fake news, real challenge

There has recently been a controversy that unfurled in the aftermath of a Naga youth posting a letter from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on social media. As the purported ISRO letter came carrying words of praise and acknowledgement directed at this Naga ‘scientist’, it ended up being shared widely on digital platforms and quite rapidly, too. Unfortunately, some news outlets also ended up hopping onto this particular train. Unfortunate because, as it turned out, the letter from ISRO was a fake one. In a different age ~ which, in this context, is not even a decade ago ~ this episode would have been a scandal proper. But this is no longer that age. As The Economist observed, though in a different context, recently: scandals are no longer exposed; they are simply noticed. But what this affair has brought to notice (once again) is the media’s part in it. At least three news outlets ~ one based at Mokokchung and the rest based outside Nagaland ~ had reported on the Naga “scientist’s achievement”. Following an exposé by another news outlet, revealing the ISRO’s letter as fake, only the one based in Mokokchung has deigned to dig more and eventually came to the same conclusion, i.e., said letter was fake. Identifying and filtering false information is an unrelenting challenge across newsrooms all over. In fact, this is nigh impossible in this age because the access to information in unlimited ~ which also means unlimited influx of false information on digital platforms every day. The unremitting flow of information makes it harder to fact-check and dispose of false information that comes along it. While there is really no excuse, or room, for sloppy journalism, it should also be understood that Journalists are not completely at fault for the spread of fake news. At the same time, it is critical for the news media ~ print, visual and digital ~ to adhere to the principle of sincerity and a willingness to correct its mistakes. Without a doubt, new digital platforms have introduced and allowed for innovative journalistic practices that enable novel means of communication and greater audience reach. And journalism is all the richer and more vibrant for it. But on the other hand, because of its quicker and more instantaneous nature, it is also more prone to accelerating disinformation and misinformation. Verification of news before publishing remains a cardinal rule. However, this particular diktat tends to take the backseat even as the news media landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. Through digital technology, there has been a remarkable raise in the reach of journalism, social media and public engagement. Online news searches are now commonplace, whether done through Google, X, Facebook, large newspapers or local media websites. Smartphone notifications and mobile applications also instantly inform users of the most recent happenings. It is critical to understand that these users are also sharers of news ~ both factual and fake ~ on the same platforms. Thus, the importance of media literacy even among the readers. Determining how news fits into one’s political and moral compass is not the goal of media literacy. Instead, it is about obtaining an independent education to avoid becoming just another easily swayed individual motivated by partisan talking points and cultural conflicts. To an impartial eye, attempting to counteract fake news in the digital age could very well resemble the thankless task of a person trying to roll a rock up the hill. However, there are ways to remain up to date on the facts. Also, as small newsrooms have come to learn and experience, the never-ending struggle to dispel misinformation eventually ends up diverting attention from the underlying problems. Journalists too should continue to maintain a healthy scepticism towards news sources and refrain from jumping to conclusions until independently verified. It is always advisable to communicate with a varied range of people and from a variety of sources. As tricky as the recent episode involving the Naga youth’s fake letter has been, it is hoped that journalism in Nagaland will be better for it.