Stuart White 22-05-2020 9:13 AM
Categories: HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White

A  few weeks ago, around the start of Lockdown, it was reported that an expatriate woman was to be prosecuted for sharing a false report on  Corona on a local Whatsapp group.  Having not seen a follow-up, that may very well have also been ‘Fake news’!  It is so hard to tell these days.  

For example, this morning I woke up to a post on our work Whatsapp group announcing a change to the government order lifting certain lockdown restrictions, namely free movement within zones, potentially causing a flurry of problems, angst and cancelled plans.   It looked legitimate enough and I guess feasible, but one member questioned its authenticity because she had not seen the same information verified in any other news feeds.  In this instance her suspicion was warranted because the information turned out to be false.  This is where we are today - where the possibility of fake news and our awareness of it is so high that we have become suspicious of much of what we read and hear.

It all too common. Earlier this month a video of an elderly woman with coronavirus being put into a body bag whilst still alive went viral. The video showed her on top of plastic sheeting struggling to breathe with a caption claiming her family had been told she was dead. It originated in Brazil and spread on WhatsApp and Facebook where various versions were shared hundreds of thousands of times, including in large,  English-language conspiracy groups.   

The truth was not quite as dramatic.  BBC News Brazil was told by director of the Abelardo Santos Hospital in northern Brazil that the protective sheeting she was lying on was indeed a body bag, but it was used as a makeshift stretcher to transfer her to another bed. "It's a common practice in hospitals," he said, "especially during a pandemic which forces us to adapt". So, the picture was genuine, but the interpretation was not just misleading, it was malicious and even mendacious.

False reporting is not new although the term ‘Fake news’ has certainly been so popularised and promoted by Donald Trump it has moved into common usage in our everyday language. With Trump, of course, it appears to be that when he sees or hears something that does not fit his narrative, he immediately declares it ‘fake news’ and simply ignores it! But as I said, this is not a new phenomenon.  In the late 1930s when the now famous Orson Wells’ War of the World’ radio play  was broadcast on American radio it was reported that it had resulted in mass hysteria with tens of thousands of people fleeing their home believing  it to be news reportage of a genuine alien  invasion. These reports turned out to be untrue, though the myth was disseminated for decades.  While there may have been a handful of people who thought that the airing of the drama was the real thing,  the panic story was “almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketch wire service round-ups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail” .   Yet the myth that this really had happened was kept alive until as recently as 2010 when it was debunked in a study cleverly called ‘The War of the Words Panic’. 

Today our media may be markedly different, but the issue remains the same. Last year on a CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust ,  a majority admitted to falling for fake news at least once – citing Facebook as the leading, offending source:

86% said they had fallen for fake news at least once, with 44% saying they sometimes or frequently did. 

Only 14% said they had “never” been duped by fake news.

Facebook was the most commonly cited source of fake news, with 77%  users saying they had personally seen fake news there, followed by 62% of Twitter users and 74% of social media users in general. Also, in the study social media companies emerged as the leading source of user distrust in the internet — surpassed only by cybercriminals — with 75% of those surveyed citing social media platforms as contributing to their lack of trust. 

One thing which I have struggled with during this period is being regulated as to when I can exercise, shop, go to work, meet friends or not.  While I am appreciative of governments’ need to protect its citizens and health care systems,  it is at odds with my need to make personal determinations about my health, safety and how I go about my life.  It the same feeling I get when I feel manipulated, duped or lied to in the media.

Surely it is time that governments and internet companies make more effort and take more responsibility to combat fake news from social media and video sharing platforms by deleting fake news posts, videos and offending  accounts and  adopting  consensual automated approaches to content removal and censorship? However, just as I am torn with being controlled during a lockdown and the obvious need for the measure, I am also sensitive to the idea of controlling news as the question arises ‘where does freedom of speech start and end?’

Independent and uncontrolled media and the independence of the Fifth Estate  is the cornerstone of democracy and free choice.  But here’s the rub.  The untrammelled phenomenon of social media means that where once press accreditation was  a privilege granted only to the few, no such entry requirement is required to sign up to social media; where once an astute editor would proof and censor written copy or broadcast news reports,  no such supervision  and second opinion is required  to post in Cyberspace.  In other words, any Twit can Tweet on Twitter!  There are no checks and balances, no –one to put a metaphorical red pen through cant, crudeness, crassness, propaganda or prejudice.  The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg opened up Pandora’s box , removed the filter at the top and let the  opinions  of the masses loose.

There is an answer but you won’t like it and you’re holding it in your hands right now!  Believe nothing and accept nothing not appearing in the mainstream press or in an old-fashioned, hard-copy book.


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Stuart White

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