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Being factual in the post-truth era (Hindu)

Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif, for all practical purposes, recently threatened Israel with a retaliatory nuclear attack, in response to a fake news report that the Israelis had said they would use nuclear weapons against Pakistan if it sent ground troops to Syria. Earlier, a man fired an assault rifle in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. after reading online that it was involved in a child trafficking ring linked to Hillary Clinton. In India, a fake story said there was a GPS tracking chip embedded in the new Rs.2,000 note. Fake news — the deliberate creation of factually incorrect content to mislead people for some gain — is becoming an increasingly serious problem. And tackling it is imperative in a perpetually wired and click-happy world. Everyone with an Internet connection and a social media presence is now a content generator. Access to the web at all times on mobile platforms has raised expectations for real-time news and constant entertainment, and competition among websites and social media platforms has resulted in the proliferation of ‘clickbait’. With platforms such as Facebook, that have hundreds of millions of users, news, fake or otherwise, spreads rapidly.

While the news may be fake, its impact is real and potentially far-reaching. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately two-thirds of Americans felt ‘fake news’ had caused a “great deal of confusion” over current affairs. The abundance of fake stories during the U.S. presidential elections has raised concerns about their impact on election results. This has set alarm bells ringing in Europe where several countries are about to go to the polls. Germany is considering imposing a €500,000 fine on Facebook if it shares fake news, and an Italian regulator has asked European countries to set up an agency to combat fake news. The danger is that instruments to identify fake news could become muzzles on opinion and speech. Therefore, while such regulation is needed, it is vital that it comes from within. Social media and news organisations can regulate themselves at different levels, most importantly through rigorous internal editorial and advertising standards. Industry-wide measures, such as adherence to a charter of standards on fake news and imposition of fines on organisations falling short of these, could be done. Meanwhile, the broad contours of what constitutes fake news need to be defined. News and social media companies have a moral responsibility to ensure that they do not, directly or otherwise, deliberately misrepresent the facts to their audiences and pass them off for news. If it is a post-truth world we inhabit, this becomes especially important.

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