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The era of fake news

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“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Most times, when a reference is made to ‘Fake News’, chuckles erupt from those within earshot, at least, once those reacting are not the subject of the propaganda or negatively affected by it.

The term ‘Fake News’, made popular by president of the United States Donald Trump, refers to false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Trump uses the term to attack mainstream media, which he claims is in opposition to him.

But attempts to mislead the public and spread misinformation have been in existence for centuries and are not limited to the United States; in fact, the practice is alive and well here in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). This phenomenon, however, fuelled by social media, has seen an upsurge in the last few years.

Prior to the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, many false websites were dismissed as being satirical, meant only for humour, entertainment or to criticize or mock another’s weakness. It is now becoming clear that these false news outlets can no longer be dismissed as harmless, as millions believe what those sites publish and efforts to correct the falsehoods never get as much engagement from the public as the original story.

Take, for example, two of the top fake news stories for 2016 — the first that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president; the other that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS. Those and similar stories were believed by millions and some believe they played a decisive role in last year’s presidential election.

Analysis done by BuzzFeed News indicates that during the last three months of the presidential campaign, the 20 top fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement (shares, likes and comments) than the top 220 stories from real news websites.

Here in SVG, for reasons unknown, many of the fake news stories in circulation concern the Argyle International Airport (AIA). One story which got tremendous engagement was published by a local online news site in February 2017 and claimed that Virgin Atlantic airlines had announced regular direct flights from the AIA to London, commencing March 2017. Just last week, a popular broadcaster announced that he had been told that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had ‘failed’ the AIA. In both cases, the publishers of the false information have apologized, but many people will never hear the correction/truth. That is the danger.

Fake news is no laughing matter and media houses, as dealers in information, have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in their news reporting. In countries like Myanmar, deceptive Internet content has reportedly contributed to ethnic violence. According to the NY Times, fake news has also influenced elections in Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

From time to time, media houses will get some things wrong, but most errors would be avoided if journalists remember the core principles of their profession, instead of throwing it all out the window in their haste to get likes and shares or listenership.

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