Why bother with laws on fake news?


  • Business
  • Saturday, 10 Mar 2018

Online censorship: A file picture showing Baidu’s company logo at its headquarters in Beijing. Chinese authorities blocked the use of phrases such as ‘I protest’, ‘long live the emperor’ and ‘life-long rule’ on Weibo and Baidu. — Reuters

FAKE news spreads faster and reaches out to more people than real news. Fake news is not spread by robots on computer programmes but by people.

These are among the facts that a team of three researchers from the prestigious MIT Sloan School of Management have determined from a study on the spread of fake news on social media.

In the paper entitled “The Spread of True and False News Online” that was made available last week, Prof Sinan Aral, Assoc Prof Deb Roy and Dr Soroush Vasoughin revealed the findings after tracking 126,000 cascades of news stories spread via Twitter, which were tweeted over 4.5 million times by three million people.

During the course of their research, which was funded by Twitter, the trio looked at news that was tweeted over 11 years -- between 2006 and 2017.

In what is described as perhaps the closest to a comprehensive research undertaken on fake news in recent times, the study revealed that false news stories are 70% likely to be re-tweeted compared to true stories.

Stories that are true take six times longer to reach 1,500 people compared to false news for the same number of people. What is most interesting is that out of the 126,000 cascades of news stories spread through Twitter, some 35% were politically inclined news items.

Hence, it is easy to fathom why fake news spread through social media had played a big part in determining the outcome in the elections in the United States, France, Brazil and many other places.

Incidentally, as Malaysia is on the cusp of a general election, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak has disclosed that the government is looking at laws to punish those who spread fake news.

It will be interesting to see how the law to punish those that spread fake news is structured.

Like any law, it has to be enforced without fear or favour on anyone. Can the law on fake news be enforced without accusations of selective prosecution?

Many would doubt it.

To understand why people generally feel this way, we need to drill down to the categories of those spreading fake news.

Firstly, if the study by the scholars in the MIT Sloan School of Management is anything to go by, then fake news is largely spread by people and not `bots’ as many had envisaged.

Bots, the abbreviated version of robot, are programmes that run on computers. The general view is that the bots amplify the spread of fake news. But the study shows otherwise.

The culprits, it points out, are people.

There are two categories of people who spread fake news – those who do it deliberately, and those who spread the news unwittingly.

The first category of people should be identified and hauled up for action. Those who deliberately spread fake news in return for financial gratification should be punished as a deterrent. This group which deliberately spreads fake news is usually made up of hired hands or they do it with an agenda.

The people who should be severely punished are those backing these hired hands. The backers are generally wealthy, well-connected and have a bigger agenda to spread the fake news. They do it with a view of making large gains in their business and political forays.

They pull the strings behind the veil of secrecy. It would be hard to nail them, unless there is complete resolve by the authorities to do so. Hence, the issue of enforcement with regards to fake news would be largely viewed as political than anything else.

The public, by and large, does not take any prosecution with the slightest tinge of political undertones seriously. This which brings us back to the question of the necessity for laws on fake news.

The second category of people who spread fake news unwittingly are those with `little knowledge’. They do not sit back to deliberate on the veracity of the news they receive through social media.

Their tendency is to gain attention by being identified as the `first person’ to share `sensational’ news.

The majority of people spreading fake news fall into the second category. They unwittingly share news on social media without spending a thought on whether there is any truth to the matter.

The second group of people need help. They need daily doses of literacy on news that they receive through social media. They need to be constantly engaged to know the difference between fake and real news.

On a daily basis, they need to be injected with a dose of real news. Constant engagement is effective. This is something that most political parties agree on.

In this day and age, where even audio and video clippings can be doctored, literacy on social media is the way out to reduce the spread of fake news. It is the same as educating the masses on drug abuse or children on sex and reproduction.

Controlling social media is difficult. The only country that is known to have effectively controlled the flow of news through social media is China. They do it by blocking the services of Twitter, Google and Facebook and micro-managing the local websites and search engines.

Last week, it was reported that the Communist Party of China censured at least 13 websites and search engines as it went on a campaign to silence the displeasure on a proposed move to end the law that limits the president’s term to two. The proposed move is seen as fortifying President Xi Jinping’s position.

The Chinese authorities blocked the use of phrases such as “I protest”, “long live the emperor” and “life-long rule” on Weibo and Baidu.

Weibo is China’s largest microblogging website, while Baidu is its most-used search engine.

Malaysia is a small country on the world stage. It cannot stop giant technology companies such as Google, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, nor does it have the power to exert any sort of authority on them.

Having laws to stop the dissemination of fake news on social media platforms is moot. There are already enough laws to bring to book those who defame, slander and spread fake news through social media. It is only a matter of enforcement.

So, why bother with more laws?


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