How to address fake news?

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Photo of two parrot birds with speech bubbles saying fake news against a blue sky background. Photodynamx, Dreamstime.com

The three days Asia Media Summit which ends today, was a forum for some 600 delegates from 42 countries deliberated mostly on combatting disinformation, including fake news, how to adapt to digital revolution, envisioning the media in the 4th Industrial Revolution and media credibility.

Even the Prime Minister got into the act of talking about the scourge of fake news in his keynote address and urged participants to step up the fight against fake news and disinformation, warning against the evolution of technology that spawns cybercrimes.

He stressed that fake news and cybercrimes severely threatened individual rights as well as regional and global security and called for the strengthening of law enforcement and professional ethics to curb the dissemination of fake news, insults, hateful speeches, incitement and discrimination and conflicts between races and religions, all of which could harm social security.

Mr. Hun Sen also called on all relevant entities to collectively increase close cooperation within the bilateral, regional and global frameworks to fight against fake news and cybercrimes.

Having said that, Cambodia, which is a prime breeding ground for fake news and misinformation dissemination from media stake holders, registered or otherwise, legal or otherwise, there is no law to combat fake news or its dissemination.

It also does not have the capacity to block, monitor or act against the purveyors of fake news and information disinformation. Many of these fake news, in terms of words, photos, videos, audios, text messages through social media networks but yet today in Cambodia, there are tens of online media outlets with various fancy sounding names without paying attention to the damage they cause to the victims of such news as long as the money keeps rolling in.

According to Wikipedia, fake news, also known as junk news or pseudo-news, is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.

The false information is often caused by reporters paying sources for stories, an unethical practice called checkbook journalism. Digital news has brought back and increased the usage of fake news, or yellow journalism. The news is then often reverberated as misinformation in social media but occasionally finds its way to the mainstream media as well.

Fake news is written and published usually with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership. Similarly, click bait stories and headlines earn advertising revenue from this activity.

In Cambodia, there are many examples of fake news. This range from the fake news disseminated by an opposition leader in 2013 on Election Day which set of riots, vehicles burned, properties looted and was exacerbated to become a security nightmare for the government and the people.

In the context of the US and its election processes in 2016, fake news generated considerable controversy and argument, with some commentators defining concern over it as moral panic or mass hysteria and others worried about damage done to public trust.

In January 2017, the UK House of Commons conducted a parliamentary inquiry into the “growing phenomenon of fake news.”

However, is the fake news phenomenon the result of technological evolution or is it self-inflicted curse on society as a whole?

The evolution of media technology compelled fake news to be spread and shares faster than a credible news agency could verify facts and publish the truth as which has been duly verified by journalists.

As journalist Kayla Matthews had written in a piece published by the World Economic Forum, people today are increasingly reliant on smartphones, smart speakers and other gadgets. Most can’t imagine going more than a few hours without using a computer, and some of them spend most of their workdays sitting in front of the computer.

This shift towards a tech-centric culture means people are at a much higher risk of being gullible or falling prey to fake news and even disseminating them as truth because they are so believable but are also opening themselves up for another danger in today’s world, cyber-attacks and cybercrimes.

Social media has contributed immensely towards cybercrimes and cyber-attacks with supposedly encrypted data being breached, intercepted and manipulated for devilish purposes and yet, very few countries in the world must adopt stern legislation to control fake news and cybercrimes or cyber-attacks.

Last records available on the cyber sphere shows that only Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, the EU, France and Russia have enacted some form of laws and legislations to curb fake news either by targeting big data companies who do not do enough to curb fake news and also platform owners who are a party to the dissemination of such fake or hate crimes.

As for cyber crimes., according to the United Nations Trade and Development organization, 138 countries (of which 95 are developing and transition economies) had enacted such legislation. However, more than 30 countries had no cybercrime legislation in place.

It stated that 72 percent of the world’s countries had cybercrime legislations, nine percent of the countries had draft legislations, and 18 percent had no legislations and one percent with no data at all.

Amidst all these, the 16th Asian Media Summit would have missed its objectives and golden opportunity if no joint communique or resolution is adopted to combat fake news, cybercrimes and cyber-attacks as a package as one is related to the other and one is equally potent and inherently dangerous to civil society as the other.

Human rights activists fear laws to curb so-called “fake news” could be abused to silence opposition but what about the rights of those who have been affected by these fake news, lives and families destroyed, credibility and businesses in ashes and some driven towards suicide?

Surely these victims have rights too. If no severe punishment is mooted out, any conference on media anywhere in the world will end up as a conversation event, back slapping and fooling one’s self in a prophecy of self-inflicted doom.

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