How do we recover the truth in a world full of fake news?

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 9.55.32 AM
Photo illustration by Alyssa Freyman.

By: Alyssa Freyman
South Forsyth High School

Fake news has always had a shadow over social media and websites, but recently, that shadow has been growing. Publications such as Russia Today and Sputnik in Russia are currently being paid by the government to spread rumors, and people on social media get the attention they want by posting lies. In the United States, Trump hasn’t helped matters. Who could forget the moment last year when Trump called CNN “fake news” and Buzzfeed “garbage?” He did this in response to the publication of an article that contained evidence that Trump was connected to Russia. With all of these unreliable sources, it has caused the public have a difficult time deciphering the truth from the lies. French President Macron wants to change that.

“Nowadays, freedom of the press is not just being attacked by notorious dictatorships; it is also being abused by countries, considered some of the most democratic in the world,” said French President Macron at a Paris press conference in January 2018. “At a time when the role of journalists is more important than ever, when the press has taken on a fundamental role in democracy, it has never been so easy to pretend to be a journalist. Technology and money are obscuring a lack of competence and an indifference of words and opinions is leading to confusion.”

Macron had experienced fake news first-hand during the French election last year. Rumors about Macron having an offshore account in the Bahamas had spread, almost costing him winning the election. However, he was able to win 66.1 percent of the vote in France. Now, he wants to make sure that no other candidate has to face fake news. He has proposed a law where judges would decide whether information is real or false in a matter of 48 hours. This would take place three months leading up the French election.

French journalists have seen this as a violation of their press freedom, and many don’t see this as a solution, if not an addition to the problem. If the judges rule that information is fake, then the source that released it would be forced blocked from the public. France already has a fake news law that has been effective since 1881, which states that the “publication, diffusion or reproduction by whatever means, of false news” is condemned. With that still in action, some French citizens wonder what the need is for a new law. The law Macron is pushing will be under consideration by the French government this week. What does this mean for the United States?

“I think that the First Amendment is such an obstacle in the content-driven regulation of the press in America,” said Grady College Dean Charles Davis. “The French protections for free speech are no way near as strong as Americas, so I don’t think that (fake news law in the U.S.) is likely.”

While America may not adopt a new law anytime soon, there is still a push to find a solution. PolitiFact, Snopes, The Ferret, SciFacts and FactCheck.org are all websites that have been implemented to separate the lies from the truth. It has already proven useful by flagging a video as fake. What was said to be a Muslim riot during Ramadan was actually a group of football fans causing trouble after a match.

These sites could prove to be helpful in the future as people, such as Trump, publish questionable stories. Technocognition is a program scientists are currently working on that will have questionable information sent to experts to be verified. If it is discovered to be false, the program will automatically flag it in Facebook and Google. Another possible solution is making more people aware on how to find the lies in a post. If a computer system can’t find the lies, then the public can find it for themselves.

Germany and Sweden are fighting against fake news by  spreading public awareness. Germany passed millions of leaflets to warn people about fake news and how to find it. Poynter, a global news publication, reported that “the Swedish civil defense authority MBS is set to inform its citizens through large-scale communication campaigns about internal and external “threats” before the general elections on Sep 9 this year.

But in the United States, Davis said the responsibility ultimately lies with the media.

“We (journalists) have to do a better job in the press of explaining to the American public how we work, we we do, and how we do it. We need to let people inside our news processes. I think if the average American knew how much time and effort journalists spend in getting things right, and how quickly they rectify mistakes by publicly correcting them, I think they’d be amazed,” Davis said. “What other profession do you know of that publicly corrects itself? You go to the doctor, and there’s not some poster in the lobby that says ‘I screwed up a diagnosis the other day and it resulted in surgery on a guy that probably didn’t need to be performed because I overdiagnosed.’ […] That’s never going to happen!”

 

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