Ever since the fountainhead of fake news moved into the White House two years ago, the news space for lesser mortals including media houses has taken a serious beating. Through the various hats I wear which includes writing opinion pieces for media sites as well as speeches and briefing documents for CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies in Europe and India, I have been observing this grotesque phenomenon from various angles in three languages – Hindi, English and French. The good news is that producers of fake news are lazy and rarely bother to counter criticism. The bad news is there are far too many of them on social media making it difficult for readers to sift wheat from chaff.
Let me say this upfront. I do not trust websites whose only job is to call out fake news. They are as much in the business of lying than the lies they claim to call out. In their method of work, sensationalism prevails over compliance and verification as headlines and clicks secure the company’s bottom line. In a tangential way, their business model replicates that of NGOs – high on moralising and virtue signalling and low on meaningful work. Many civil society organisations begin on the premise that since they are doing good work for society, their credentials cannot be questioned. To do so would not be a liberal act!
As I write comes news that the much-feted COO of Facebook Cheryl Sandberg actively pushed wrongful business practices, turned a blind eye to Facebook interfering in elections, inciting ethnic violence and genocide and even admonished an honest officer for doing his job. A report in The New Republic says that that while Facebook’s COO “…Cheryl Sandberg was building her global brand she was using aggressive and underhand tactics at Facebook. As the company faced increasing criticism and pressure over its handling of fake news, election interference, data abuse, and the incitement of ethnic violence and genocide, she embraced a strategy to suppress information about Facebook’s problems, discredit its critics and deflect blame onto its competitors. She berated her security chief for being honest about the extent of the Russian campaign on the site. And she employed multiple crisis PR firms that spread fake news as a defence tactic, in one instance tying critics to the liberal billionaire George Soros, a frequent subject of anti-Semitic abuse online.” I used this long quote verbatim – it is too precious to paraphrase. What does this mean for Indian companies collaborating with Facebook as fact checkers? That bit about election interference or “inciting ethnic violence and genocide” is particularly relevant as India goes full blast into election mode.
I shared my views on fake news recently with journalists and others at the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF). I’m not sure the penny dropped. Shorn of packaging and glitter, fake news is a clumsy and heavy-handed embellishment of lies masquerading as facts via platforms that are accountable to none. To buttress this monstrosity there is an entire industry of fake news busters whose only job is to run down others who do not speak their language literally and in every manner possible. The sooner we call out this burgeoning business which is getting an octopus-like grip in newsrooms, the saner we will all be and we can return to the job of good journalism.
It is my considered view, that fake news is a contradiction in itself. I believe there is good journalism and bad journalism and fake news brings up the rear in the latter. The tragedy is to see experienced journalists falling for the fake moustache or pink wig with such ease that you wonder if they are just lazy, biased or plain stupid. Bias is fine as long as it is stated. What does not work is biased reporting pretending to be neutral to which commentary and opinions are added. Recently a reporter told me she had covered all sides as “…I’ve got both angles…he said, she said.” There’s nothing wrong in what the reporter said. She was doing her best in a system that expects journalists to spit out a certain number of stories a day to stay ahead of competition.
Lazy journalism in my view is the worst of all worlds. A bit of fact, a lot of fiction, overdose of adjectives, dollops of ego and blaring headlines. The impact of this kind of shoddy work on our metier can be and is devastating. Add to this social media, which has made everyone a journalist. You can see this when there’s a newsbreak. There’s virtual diarrhoea on twitter with every angle explained even before the story is complete.
Europe has its regular dose of lies typically around refugees drowning (one was even staged), credit cards being distributed in refugee camps and the billionaire philanthropist George Soros under-writing all of it. While nobody believes these absurdities, what happens when a child actually drowns in the Mediterranean Sea? How must a newsroom react to reports of atrocities on people based on their religion or nationality? There is no one answer except to ensure that rigour and discipline on facts is such a daily activity that nothing can shake that foundation. Not the Internet, nor the trolls and certainly not politicians.
This brings me to an important point. Experienced journalists will tell you that every newsroom has a tone, a voice, a system of verification and news flow that is set by the Editor – in – Chief and senior editorial management. The desk should, in principle, be the firewall that separates the flow of copy coming in to what finally gets uploaded or printed. Unbelievable as it may sound, not many reporters I’ve spoken to re-read their copy. This is fertile ground for the lazy and wicked to push their piece.
If the voice in the news setting is a lie i.e. based on spinning every piece of information beyond recognition that is bad journalism, not fake news. If the tone of the portal/news network/newspaper is vindictive, you know there’s an agenda. I say vindictive, not varied for a reason. It is important for healthy journalism to engage with all views and argued in a mature manner. Is that possible today? There is so much appetite for voyeurism and slander that if one platform does not publish a defamatory piece, there are others. And there are yet others who will make a business out of calling out the fake moustache.
Most journalists want to do good work, push the boundaries, develop domain expertise, cultivate credible sources and produce copy that is at once excellent and thought-provoking. If we make a mistake, we apologise and move on. If someone counters a piece, read it without pride or prejudice. Let us keep fake news at bay and work towards securing our space as journalists. Journalism is a public good and when we put pen to paper, it must be done with a sense of responsibility and humility.
I used the Facebook story at the beginning of this piece. I’d like to sign off thus. I am a huge fan of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella not only for his business acumen, but also for his humanity and empathy with people. He has often been quoted as saying Microsoft does not use customers’ personal data for profit (read Google and Facebook). The company has data. LinkedIn, which it owns has over 550 million users and Bing figures as the number third search engine worldwide. Nadella has called data privacy “a human right…” as has Apple’s Tim Cook who said earlier this year that detailed online profiles of users would eventually be used for nefarious practices.
Journalism is a public good. When we put pen to paper, let us never forget the responsibility we must bring to every word we write. The less you show your power, the more sources you will attract. The less you talk about yourself, the more your credibility will be.