Fake news: study shows its dangers and calls for citizens to oppose it – IRR

12 May 2021 - Fake news poses a threat to free societies; it poisons societies’ information environments, distorts perceptions of what is true and false and can severely corrode social and political interactions. But be equally wary of the response to this phenomenon, for combating it could introduce a raft of dangers to free societies too.

Fake news poses a threat to free societies; it poisons societies’ information environments, distorts perceptions of what is true and false and can severely corrode social and political interactions. But be equally wary of the response to this phenomenon, for combating it could introduce a raft of dangers to free societies too.

This is the overall message of a new report by the Institute of Race Relations, entitled Fake News: A New Challenge to Human Rights? It was authored by Terence Corrigan and Nicholas Lorimer.

Surveying the history of the idea, the paper argues that while fake news came to prominence in the 2016 American presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, it has a much longer pedigree.

Fake news is in essence material that attempts to communicate false or deliberately distorted information in pursuit of a narrative and typically a political or social goal.

One can go back to the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages for examples of this. The anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’ – that Jews used the blood of Christians for their rituals – can be traced to an accusation made in England in 1144. It visited untold misery on Jews for generations, with the last known trial on this charge having been in 1911 in Russia. It persists today among some anti-Semitic Christians and Muslims.

A more recent example was the planting by the Soviet KGB of the claim that HIV was the result of an experiment by the US military. Complete with bogus academic and scientific claims to support it, it was in essence intended as propaganda against the US before audiences in the developing world. It was an influential enough idea that an intellectual within the ANC – who went by the pen name Mzala – endorsed it in his writings.

One wonders how much damage such thinking inflicted globally.

Today, the advent of cheap and user-friendly communication technology has given this phenomenon a fearful reach.

The study looks at a number of case studies of fake news in recent years: the conspiracies around COVID-19, the ‘Facebook Genocide’ of the Rohingya, and the viral video of the ‘confrontation’ between a student at Covington Catholic High School, Nicholas Sandmann, and a Native American activist in early 2019.  

Each of these illustrates the dangers of fake news and the narratives they build. They have aggravated social fault lines, diverted societal conversations, complicated already complex issues (not least handling the COVID outbreak) and, in its most extreme manifestations, led to or justified murder. This is a matter of human rights in their most basic sense.

This is a real danger, and one that is only likely to grow ever greater in societies that increasingly engage with themselves digitally.

Possible solutions to this include legislation to punish the purveyors of fake news, fact checking and the use of algorithms to identify it. These, however, have their weaknesses, not least because they can become subject to their own brand of censoriousness and to pushing their own narratives.

The study comes out in favour of media literacy and proper engagement by citizens with the media content they consume. Just as it is often said that a society will get the standard of governance it deserves, so it is with media. This is a tough, uncertain business, but with the stakes as high as they are, it is a challenge that democratic societies dare not fail to rise to.

Read the report here: https://irr.org.za/reports/occasional-reports/fake-news-a-new-challenge-to-human-rights

 

Media contacts: Terence Corrigan, IRR Project Manager – 066 470 4456; terence@sairr.org.za

Nicholas Lorimer, IRR Campaigns Officer – 071 901 2164; nicholas@irr.org.za

 

Media enquiries: Michael Morris – 066 302 1968; michael@irr.org.za

Kelebogile Leepile – 079 051 0073; kelebogile@irr.org.za

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