HAVE you ever wondered why it has become so difficult for people to separate fact from fiction?
A fact is a statement of truth that can be verified and proven as true. An opinion, on the other hand, reflects an author’s or speaker’s point of view, his or her beliefs, personal feelings and values.
Unlike facts, opinions cannot be verified or proven true or false. However, a person’s opinion can be supported or refuted when a critical thinker is able to scrutinise and evaluate it.
Facts are objective while opinions are subjective. Facts are consistently repeatable in terms of their measurement and observation (empirical evidence using one’s five senses), whereas opinions are not repeatable in terms of their measurement and observation.
Sounds straightforward enough, right?
Then why do so many people find it a challenge differentiating between them? Why are people being duped into accepting fake news, biased stories and opinionated points of view as “truths”?
According to Dr Benjamin Loh Yew Hoong of Taylor’s University School of Media and Communication, it all boils down to media literacy.
“As there is an oversupply of information and a lack of reputable and reliable means for verifying the authenticity of this information, it will depend mainly on an individual’s ability to analyse and interpret news to determine if it is based on fact, ” said the senior lecturer and programme director.
“Prior to this, people could easily rely on mainstream media, like newspapers, TV and radio, for objective and accurately presented news.
“With the Internet and social media, however, this form of gatekeeping is not sufficient to manage the flow of information and so people now have to become media literate in order to assess which sources of news are credible, and to differentiate fake news from actual news.”
A simple guide for everyone to quickly determine if something is fake news or not, according to the expert, would be to check who wrote it (is it a reputable news organisation or author?), examine the contents rather than rely on the headlines or selected quotes (especially in forwarded Whatsapp messages) and check if other news sites have reported on this same topic.
“If everyone follows this simple checklist before forwarding or sharing viralled content, that would be a huge step in stemming the spread of fake news, ” Loh said.
People also seem to be happy to believe other’s opinions, especially when they gel with their own, and this has led to prevalence of “echo chambers”. An echo chamber describes a situation in which someone’s beliefs are amplified or reinforced by repetition inside a closed system, and so a person’s skewed views are insulated from rebuttal.
“The biggest problem with echo chambers, ” said Loh, “is that people will rarely admit that they are in one.
“Combined with cognitive dissonance, where people will be more receptive to information and news that match their worldviews, and reject or ignore anything that doesn’t, this further entrenches people’s own beliefs and opinions.
“In this position, facts are viewed as political weapons (like the infamous “alternative facts” statement) and are only used to advance certain goals and objectives.”
“Alternative facts” was a phrase used in 2017 by Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to the US President, to defend White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.
According to Loh, this effect is gaining momentum as people become less receptive to differing views and opinions, especially now that it is boosted by AI-powered social media and personalised content.
So what can be done?
“The best way to overcome this is to start reading content or exposing yourself to alternative viewpoints with an open mind in the hopes of expanding your own worldviews and perspectives, ” said Loh.
Go to Facebook, and you’ll be bombarded with posts – more prevalent during the pandemic this year – in which people are fighting for their rights, to not wear a mask, to not get vaccinated and so on.
It is has become commonplace for people to fight for their rights on these social media platforms, especially the freedom of speech.
However, freedom of speech does not mean one is free from consequences, and Loh said many fail to consider this when exercising their right to express themselves.
“The veil of anonymity of the Internet and social media has made it easier for one to post lies and fake news with no fear of repercussion and punishment.
The Internet, through a psychological mechanism called ‘deindividuation’ reduces an individual’s inhibitions in an anonymous or impersonal environment which results in acts of cyberbullying or cybervigilantism where people get harassed, attacked or have their personal details exposed (or doxxed) often with malicious intent.”
Loh said that the topic of freedom of speech in Malaysia is addressed at Taylor’s School of Media and Communication.
“Our students learn about it either through our journalism and media practice specialisation, or a module specifically on media laws and ethics. Our modules also teach students about these new media behaviours and conditions, and how to overcome them, ” he said.
When it comes to educating society about fake news, Dr Ross Tapsell, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University and director at ANU Malaysia Institute, said that the key is to advance quality and independent journalism.
“Unfortunately Malaysia’s media has a long history of being funded or linked to political parties, which means trust in mainstream media is low.
“This means people turn towards digital sources on Facebook and other platforms, and tend to stay within groups and opinionmakers they agree with.
“Malaysia’s mainstream, professional media needs to build trust and assert its independence from the government and political actors in the Covid-19 era, ” he said.
What’s more is that the financial models of independent journalism have come under severe stress during the 2020 pandemic and an increasing number of credible news sites have been turned into subscription models.
Sadly, this has led to the truth being paywalled, while lies sneak in to society for free.
“Those who can’t afford subscription need publicly-funded news organisations (like TV3 and Bernama) which allow for free access and dissemination of news. Unfortunately, many media outlets are seen to be pro-government and not independent.”
Tapsell reckons that misinformation and disinformation are problems everywhere.
“While education is important, it can only do so much. It’s up to Malaysian institutions (government and non-government) to build a healthy digital public sphere.”
But what constitutes a healthy digital sphere?
Tapsell’s comment about credible independent journalism jumps to mind, and he said another obvious factor is user engagement in the online realm. There needs to be safe spaces for users, where a free flow of ideas and debate is allowed.
Public discourse, no doubt, plays a vital role. It is an important forum through which people can voice their concerns and form opinions.
Online platforms provide new opportunities for social engagement, both in the production of news and information, and in online activism and movement building. But who monitors these platforms to ensure it is safe and fair?
Ask yourself what rights, freedoms and opportunities must be upheld for digital technologies to enhance the quality of this discourse.
And with whom does the responsibility for creating and maintaining such standards lie – the government? Tech giants? Or each one of us individual citizens?
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