The rise of the social media has changed the news sphere so much that many people get their news primarily from platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

This has increased the visibility of different news sites, where the reader can pick and choose and interpret according to his values. Readers can also produce news through various forms of technology and media – indeed we are all potential active prosumers and not just passive consumers of news.  

Of course, this does not mean that there is a level playing field in the production and consumption of news: the political economy of news production can never be discarded from the media sphere. Neither can other factors such as technical skills, readability, efficacy, algorithms and media trends. 

What I would like to discuss in this article is the challenge related to the production and consumption of fake news. Here I am not referring to different ideologies, values and perspectives in the interpretation of facts. What I am referring to are news that are plain false. 

To give a basic example: different news sites may give different interpretations and emphases about the action of a politician. But if the politician dies, this fact cannot be faked in the news. Maybe it can be postponed – as is sometimes the case in dictatorial regimes – but death is a fact which nobody can escape.

An inevitable question in this regard is: should we be free to spread fake news, and should it then be up to the reader to believe it or not? 

I believe that free speech must always be situated in a context of responsibility. The question is how the latter can be implemented. For example, legal liabilities and regulations for news platforms, including those that use the social media, could be accompanied by increased investment and cooperation among fact-checking networks. 

Persons who feel aggrieved through fake news should also have more accessible facilities to defend both their reputation as well as the ‘truths’ they believe have been violated. 

Should we be free to spread fake news, and should it then be up to the reader to believe it or not?

I don’t believe that this should result in authoritarian truth-police, but I do have sympathy for persons whose life was shattered courtesy of lies that were spread in the social media. 

As things stand, social media platforms like Facebook offer very few remedies to the victims of fake news. I hope that the recent appointment of former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as head of its global affairs and communications team can help improve things in this regard.  

I also believe that citizens should be equipped to do our part to combat fake news. Civic, ethical and political education should be mainstreamed in the educational system and political actors should form coalitions of trust to combat such dishonest practices.

I also invite readers to look out for fact-checking professional websites that do the job such as Snopes and The Conversation. 

Christina Hagler from the University of Harvard recommends that we also investigate what a news site stands for. Sometimes even basic grammatical characteristics can give a news site away. 

The same can be said as regards lack of references and sources, if the news in question is basically invisible in other sites or if the site in question has a name which is almost identical to that of another legitimate news site. 

Finally, let us not succumb to the illusion that just because some news site is popular it is accurate. 

Sometimes a fake news goes viral, even when there are giveaways that are recognised by attentive and savvy readers. When this happens, I believe that it is our responsibility as active citizens to point this out. 

For it would be a disservice to our civic and democratic responsibilities if we cling to a piece of fake news just because it happens to put our adversaries in bad light. This is like playing a game and not observing the rules. 

Let us not feed the trolls who are hungry for attention through cheap dishonesty. Let us criticise and question each other but let us do this respectfully and honestly.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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