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Fighting fake news

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Medical professionals this week came together to refute sterilisation pills and other false information spread by fake news in an effort to reduce their impact on communal tensions and call for the public to check their facts. Yet at a time when the whole world is fighting fake news and its insidious repercussions, it is essential for Sri Lanka to also have a wide-ranging discourse on the issue. 

Fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns are especially problematic in democratic systems, and there is growing debate on how to address these issues without undermining the benefits of digital media. In order to maintain an open, democratic system, it is important that government, business, and consumers work together to solve these problems, believes the Brookings Institute, which insists that the first step should be to support the existing mainstream media to be more empowered and ethical.   

The news media landscape has changed dramatically over the past decades. Through digital sources, there has been a tremendous increase in the reach of journalism, social media, and public engagement. Checking for news online—whether through Google, Twitter, Facebook, major newspapers, or local media websites—has become ubiquitous, and smartphone alerts and mobile applications bring the latest developments to people instantaneously. In such an environment offline reactions also need to be faster. In the case of Ampara, where the sterilisation pill issue materialised most recently, it was days after that Government or other reactions were seen and by that point the damage had been done.

People, especially less-informed segments of society with inherent bias of views, would eagerly embrace and believe fake news and mistrust mainstream media, which they could see as unreliable or being influenced by other agendas. This is why is it critical to promote the independence of newspapers and other media in a meaningful way so that people have a source of information they can trust. Undermining media independence by pushing them to be politically partisan undermines this confidence. 

Between news coverage they don’t like and fake news that is manipulative in nature, many people question the accuracy of their news. This decline in public trust in media is dangerous for democracies. This gap has manifested in questionable election results, political change and communal tensions around the world. Such developments have complicated the manner in which people hold leaders accountable and the way in which our political system operates.

As much as the Sri Lankan Government may feel that it can keep a tab on social media by introducing new regulations and monitoring mechanisms, it must understand that this will only be a partial solution at best for a rapidly-evolving phenomenon that has encompassed the whole world.      

Governments should promote news literacy and strong professional journalism in their societies. The news industry must provide high-quality journalism in order to build public trust and correct fake news and disinformation without legitimising them. Technology companies should invest in tools that identify fake news, reduce financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation, and improve online accountability. Educational institutions should make informing people about news literacy a high priority. Finally, individuals should follow a diversity of news sources, and be sceptical of what they read and watch.

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