The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Gaffar Abdul, Communications Officer at Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).

‘Fake news’, ‘misinformation’, ‘online falsehoods’ – call it what you may, but let us not be mistaken – this is not a recent phenomenon. Neither is it truly a new problem, though arguably it has gained new relevance in today’s information society, largely due to the rise of social media.

Indeed, fake news has existed in one form or another since antiquity. Propaganda campaigns, ‘spinning’ and hoaxes can all be considered forms of disinformation, even if its exact definition is debatable. The ambiguity surrounding the term ‘fake news’ is the first obstacle to what makes it so hard to tackle.

The term means different things to different people. For example, a politically polarised society can create segments of population that adhere to such differing realities that the word ‘fake’ itself can end up being subjective.

In 2016, the phrase ‘fake news’ was mainly used to describe a social media phenomenon. Since then, it has rapidly evolved into a journalistic cliché, a political slur and, in some places, deemed a matter of national security.

That is why the Asia-Europe Foundation prefers to enclose the term ‘fake news’ between inverted commas. Before a commonly agreed definition is settled upon, it is more prudent to declare that our understanding of the term is limited.

This limited understanding, however, can be expanded upon through exposure to a diversity of perspectives. In recognising the complexities of the issue, it is thus necessary to encourage a comprehensive multi-stakeholder approach, featuring, for example, voices from news media, policy making, media technology companies and civil society to create a robust discussion.

Many governments have enacted legislation to tackle ‘fake news’, while news organisations have been scrambling to establish fact-checking desks and self-regulate – all in an effort to stay credible and independent. Indeed, BBC chief Tony Hall recently warned that the misuse of the term fake news “threatens to damage confidence in journalism”.

Civil society too has jumped in with efforts to promote news literacy on all levels, as is the case with Lie Detectors’ classroom sessions, which promote critical thinking. Media technology companies are turning to tech-based solutions such as AI, while adopting new codes of conduct to counter election meddling.

Given the array of different measures and the depth to which ‘fake news’ affects society on all levels, it is clear that any serious effort to tackle the issue must be a coordinated one, incorporating perspectives from the different pillars of society.

This is a principle that underlines the theme of Asia-Europe Foundation’s 9th ASEF Editors’ Roundtable, as we seek to bring together news editors, policy makers and media technology companies from across Asia and Europe to share experiences on the topic and exchange ideas on how it is being tackled.

Furthermore, the issue of fake news has seen worldwide prominence in recent years due to its cross-national implications. With the global press and rampant social media all contributing to a constant barrage of information in today’s world, fake news can no longer be treated as a national issue or tackled as such.

International conferences and multilateral fora are therefore prime opportunities for the exchange of ideas. The Brazil-EU International Seminar on Fake News: Experiences and Challenges is a notable example of such an international approach to the dialogue on fake news.

Indeed, the final report of the EU’s High-Level Expert Group on Fake News advocates for cross-border research into the scale and impact of disinformation. The report, entitled “A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation”, also calls for a collaborative effort that involves all relevant stakeholders.

Through case studies and in-depth examples on the various manifestations of ‘fake news’ and the variety of approaches that are being adopted, our understanding of the topic can be enhanced, and our approaches strengthened. As a global issue, ‘fake news’ deserves a global approach.

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