C Gopinath

Facts face fake news

C Gopinath | Updated on December 05, 2018 Published on December 05, 2018

Fight against this malaise has gathered pace

Whether you like it or not, US President Donald Trump needs credit for popularising the term ‘fake news.’ He used it frequently to refer to information that cast him in a bad light. In the process, he has even developed it as a curse word. In a recent interchange with the White House reporter from CNN, he said, ‘You are fake news’.

Fake news is a reality. I do not click on more than half the items forwarded to me on Facebook or by email from friends because the content seems suspicious and I do not recognise the source of the report. Neither am I interested enough to check it. I may be overly sensitive, but if you look at the kind of junk that circulates these days, it is better to be over sensitive.

Many countries are initiating projects to teach children in schools how to recognise fake news. A great initiative, for with children, it becomes an investigative game. BBC News recently showed students in a classroom in Kenya being challenged on news items and they were putting all their skills into play. They recognised errors in the picture suggesting tampering of the video, they saw mistakes in the text. Fake news is a global phenomenon. People have got killed in India due to fake news.

People who spread fake news are anti-national. They lie not just to entertain, but with intent to harm others. This is truly a case where the ‘fabric of society’ is being harmed and the role of genuine media being denigrated.

Teaching children and the public at large is a direct way to deal with it. An indirect way is what sites like www.factcheck.org do. By making facts available free to the public that can be used to check on stories when we come across something suspicious is a useful challenge to this virus. This would also help those who bring the news and its interpretations to us allowing them to check the veracity.

A new and interesting move in this regard is the website USAFacts.org. This has been started and funded as a philanthropy initiative by Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft.

This is not new data. It draws the data the government collects at various levels and sources, and organises it in a manner that can be easily accessed. Those who try to get data from government sources know how difficult that can be. Now, using all the available software technologies and presentation skills, it is being made easy.

Much public debate and rumours are about what the government is doing or not doing. Now we have the facility to check it out ourselves.

Since the site is positioned as non-partisan, it is being promoted as data presented without an agenda and it is up to us to interpret to support our argument. But being privately funded and controlled by one individual, without any oversight, it is closely tied to the credibility of this individual.

Will there be bias in this data? One could always go and verify directly from government sites, assuming there is no bias in how that data was collected. But think of another main source of global ‘facts’ in the US. The CIA’s World Factbook, made available freely on line by the well-known government intelligence agency. I leave you to think of what biases that may have!

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on December 05, 2018
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