We are edging towards a world where reality has become a matter of personal opinion, Dr Alex Grech, executive director of the Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning, tells Stanley Borg. The renewed focus on facts and fake news is the theme of a major conference in October.

The signifier ‘fake news’ is a recent entry in the dictionary. Yet the signified is as old as humankind, with instances of fake news found from ancient history to the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Why this sudden mass awareness that news can be real or fake, sourced or unsourced?

History is the stuff of lies and untruths. Let’s just say that fake news, alternative facts or even outright lies are not just becoming part of everyday news – they are part of our vernacular, hardly meriting a shrug, let alone the moral panic of The War of the Worlds. That’s the new normal.

Until the advent of the internet and the mass uptake of social media, public communication tended to be the domain of the few who could afford to own a printing press, radio or TV station and employ journalists. The notion of the fourth estate is intertwined with broadcast media outlets as the watchdog of society, trusted intermediaries for deciding what constitutes news, and disseminating that through proprietary channels.

Today, the global media landscape is dominated by smartphones and a handful of technology companies in Silicon Valley, where online content is produced, circulated and shared within societies where datafication is often leading to new social surveillance systems.

More than four billion mobile phones are in the global domain, and this has a profound effect on the way we consume and produce information, or what we deem to be news. Mobile phones and TVs got smarter, laptops are more powerful, we rely on Siri, Alexa and whatever is next in affordable AI. And we became addicted to social media platforms.

The mass use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Snapchat and the emergence of non-traditional media outlets has not necessarily made citizen journalists of all of us – or improved the public sphere.

The underbelly of clicks, likes, retweets, shares and virality is creating an eco-system where information can be micro targeted and personalised for individual users – often in the form of content that appears to be news, but is in fact paid-for content that in its most mundane form is native advertising, and in its most extreme form can be hate speech.

Think of it this way: every person with a social media presence essentially lives in a social filter bubble hatched over sophisticated computer algorithms that belong to a handful of organisations.

In this bubble, social media users are bombarded by personally-tailored information. The result is a state of echo chambers where people increasingly only see and hear what they like, which may or may not necessarily correspond to what we would call reality.

Now imagine billions of such filter bubbles, controlled by the agendas of those that can pay for user data on social media platforms, to secure power, gain or influence. Then think of outliers. The Rohingya genocide, for instance, was incited on Facebook based on fake information that instigated communities already on edge. Facebook was the platform used to ignite the spark in which thousands lost their lives. How’s that for facts?

It’s not just Facebook. We need to understand the price we pay to access and use these platforms, when visibly they cost us nothing.

The increase of a form of pseudo nationalism has much to do with the manipulation of online social networks, with real consequences for real people – think of Brexit or Trump’s daily use of Twitter. The rise of populism in Italy, Hungary and Brazil has been fuelled by the strategic use of online media. If major democracies are in trouble, it is also partly because online social networks can be gamed and elections rigged, influenced and interfered with.

‘Post-truth’ is a rather strange word, almost full of itself, in that it implies that humanity has regressed from an age of absolute truths. But has there ever been such an age?

At a time when technology is often associated with distraction and attention disorders, perhaps the strangeness of the term is specifically intended to get some attention.

Let me cite Moises Naim, from an article in El Pais earlier this year:

“One interesting modern phenomenon is the collapse in trust.

According to the polls, people don’t trust the government, politicians, journalists and scientists, let alone bankers and business executives. Not even the Vatican has escaped this crisis of confidence.”

If it’s fine for those in power, those in whom we trust within systems of political representation, to lie regularly, use social media to spy on citizens, what are educators, parents, institutional leaders – who also have an onus of trust imposed on them – meant to do?

We are edging towards a world where reality has become a matter of personal opinion – as opposed to a compendium of informed knowledge and ‘facts’. Tom Nichols sums this up all too well in an article in The Federalist: “I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all”.

What makes fake news lethal is that the propaganda machine can use social media to amplify and broadcast

The renewed focus on facts and fake news is not only important, but fundamental for the survival of our moral integrity as a species. Think of education systems based on acquiring and transferring knowledge, that suddenly appear remarkably disconnected from the values of this brave new world.

Think of universal guidelines for codes of behaviour. If it is now OK to lie, fake, bully, distort facts – where do we go from here?

Dr Alex GrechDr Alex Grech

Is fake news propaganda in new clothes?

In many instances, yes. Most fake news is consumed by a small minority of people who already have distorted ideas and world views. What makes fake news lethal is that the propaganda machine can use social media to amplify and broadcast, say, extremist agendas to those that are most likely to be vulnerable and gullible. So yes, fake news is a form of propaganda, only with deeper, more subtle claws and unfettered access to the social graph and the personal data of billions of people.

In recent decades, traditional media shaped our opinions – now it is technology that is carrying the bulk of that burden. What is the difference?

Traditional media – be it print, TV, radio – has been morphing and hybridising into a different form for at least the past 15 years. What’s changed, of course, is the pervasiveness of all things digital. The difference is that citizens aged five and over live and sleep with screens which are never switched off. Traditional media – even if it were a book – could never claim to be that intrusive, timely or even, invisible. The smartphone is at the hub of what shapes our opinions these days. Soon, it will be whatever AI device we choose to consult to make our life better, safer or more entertaining.

Post-structuralist literary theory centres on the tenet that the author is dead, and that the text lives on, freed from the tyranny of the author. Drawing a parallel, can news live on, irrespective of the authority of the journalist – and therefore, it is up to the reader to interpret real news from the fake variety?

MIT researcher Hossein Derakhshan – who was imprisoned by the Iranian government for six years – maintains that journalism needs to be decoupled from “news” in order to save itself. Journalism and mainstream news media outlets were already in trouble before fake news came in vogue – dependency on advertising for business models and falling print sales saw to that. If bona fide journalism still matters – and it should – it needs to combat not just fake news but also other forms of entertainment for attention. News will live on, albeit modified in its mode and style of delivery. Social media networks have long realised they are in the business of news. Whether that means they are in the business of creating or modifying the veracity of news – that is up for debate.

We cannot expect readers to remain passive consumers of mainstream media ‘news’ nor should they shoulder the entire responsibility for verifying the veracity of the news they read. The deeper we dive into history, the more examples we find of governments and other public institutions trying to combat rumours and propaganda, with varying levels of success.

Identifying a piece of information as fake news might even secure more attention to it than it would get without that label, as Facebook learned with its fact-checking initiative.

Most recently, when the UK government launched its S.H.A.R.E checklist campaign to educate people about real versus fake news, most of the comments that followed were along the lines of ‘governments who lie all the time telling citizens to stop believing lies is a bit of a stretch’. The loss of trust that we face as a society in institutions – from governments to technology to journalism – fuels this crisis. If an average citizen believes the government or news media is constantly lying to them, it is easy to propagate fake news.

Re-establishing trust in trusted norms is fundamental. One of the speakers at the Post-Truth Society conference, being held on October 10 and 11, is Ruben Brave, who is driving an initiative in the Netherlands called ‘Make Media Great Again’ collaborating with publishers and a pool of readers, listeners and community to fight misinformation.

We may yet fight misinformation with technology, with governmental regulations, with improved digital literacy starting by making it an indispensable part of compulsory education. Digital and media literacy is only effective if started young. Finland was recently ranked number one on the list of countries most resilient to false information. Their weapon is education – but critical thinking starts early, with programmes for young children.

Traditional media houses are seen as suffering the most from the rise of fake news. But maybe there is a bigger loser – democracy?

Democracy tends to be the biggest loser in the battle against fake news. Not only is this dangerous to existing democracies but it has become an effective tool in the hands of corrupt governments and authoritarians everywhere to promote their personal agendas.

Brazil’s president Bolsonaro has dismissed data from his country’s national space institute about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon as fake news.

The recent general election in India, by far the largest democracy in the world, has already been dubbed as ‘the WhatsApp election’ since the app was used extensively to spread religious and caste-based propaganda.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, almost 70 per cent of Americans feel fake news and misinformation have greatly affected their confidence in government institutions. The big losers are also minorities – the so-called ‘other’ – such as refugees and migrants, even if these are regular.

On October 10-11, the Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning is hosting a conference on post-truth society. Do you aim to create dialogue, maybe find solutions or new absolutes?

This conference is one of the few forums dedicated to encouraging discussion and formulating responses to deal with the rampant erosion of trust. The basic premise is to understand what is going on, and what can be done through informed dialogue. We have structured the conference around four closely related sectors: technology, media, education and government – which arguably are our only way out of the post-truth society, but also potentially contributing to the problem.

The objective is to go beyond a short-lived conference. It’s not every day there is an opportunity to be in the same space with media scholars, blockchain experts, film-makers, philosophers, public prosecutors, data lawyers, bankers, activists, people who write for Google and The Economist.

Our expert speakers will guide and instigate the discussion as we start to identify workable solutions and an agenda for tangible projects. If you are interested in understanding in making sense of how your life is being impacted by the information on your screen of choice, and how you could develop a personal strategy to re-inform yourself, you should find something worthwhile in the conference and the networks that will be set up around it.

Dr Alex Grech, has a PhD in Internet Computing and teaches new media literacy at the University of Malta.

Understanding the Post-truth Society: From Fake News, Datafication & Mass Surveillance To the Death of Trust is being held on October 10, 11 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Early bird registration for the conference is available until July 31 at https://connectedlearning.edu.mt/register-post-truth-conference-2019/. Conference partners include Times of Malta, the US Embassy and British High Commission in Malta, Learning Machine and MCAST.