Fight against fake news gathers momentum in Asia

Fight against fake news gathers momentum in Asia

The phenomenon of fake news has become a huge talking point all over the world. Increasingly found on social media, it has created a culture of mistrust, cynicism and confusion.

Such disinformation can have a damaging impact on society, especially during crucial times such as elections. Asia is now seeing how harmful such material can be, prompting the media industry and other stakeholders to step up efforts in their fight for the truth.

The impact of fake news was discussed recently at the Asia Journalism Forum, under the theme "Reporting Facts and the Future of Journalism", in Singapore. Funded by Temasek Foundation Connects, the event brought together 100 participants to share knowledge and create networks among policymakers, media practitioners, public thought leaders and academics.

Fake news at its core is disinformation, according to Eric Wishart, former editor-in-chief of the international news agency AFP and a member of the agency's global news management based in Hong Kong. It is fabricated or manipulated content presented as legitimate news with the intent -- often malicious -- to deceive.

"When it comes to fake news, somebody asked me is there very much fake news in Asia? The answer is yes. It is a major problem everywhere in Asia," he said. "My friend in Bhutan was told that a lot of fake news occurred during the election in Bhutan, even in India and the Philippines. In Singapore, people have posted fake news on social media in order to get money from advertising clicks.

"Now it is easy to upload fake news online to make it look real. News verification has been a big issue for us. We're the gatekeepers. We verify all uploaded content before we send it to all of our clients."

At the same time, however, it is important to distinguish fake news from other material that can cause controversy for other reasons. For example, when US President Donald Trump complains about "fake news", it is usually because a news outlet has reported something truthful that he cannot accept.

"Fake news is not a politician's lies. It is not a journalist's legitimate mistake. It is not a story that a politician or public figure doesn't like," Mr Wishart said.

He offered the following headline as a representative example of what fake news is like: "Israeli Defence Minister: If Pakistan sends ground troops into Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack."

"If you read this, you will realise it was completely ridiculous," he said. "It is fake news. Fake news is very scary and of course sometimes it has a silly aspect."

Initiatives are springing up around the world to combat fake news by verifying reports more assiduously. Mr Wishart cited the example of a collaborative journalism project called Cross Check used during this year's French elections.

The public was encouraged to send messages to Cross Check when they saw stories they thought were bogus, so that it could fact-check and verify them. It helped to debunk fake news effectively during the election campaign and shut down a lot of bogus stories before they could be spread.

A similar organisation in Germany, called Correctiv, operates as a non-profit investigative organisation to fact-check reports from many sources.

"Fake news is everywhere in Asia and it is a serious problem in some countries that needs to be tackled," Mr Wishart concluded.

Wahyu Muryadi, chief corporate communication officer at Tempo Media and editor-in-chief of Tempo Channel in Indonesia, explained the efforts Tempo made to deal with fake news and debunk hoaxes during last April's hotly contested Jakarta governor election.

Tempo, he said, did not realise the scope of the fake news phenomenon before and only devoted a tiny fraction of resources to covering it. But early last year, Tempo established a special channel to debunk hoaxes at its own site.

"We can claim that we were the first media outlet to create a channel to debunk hoaxes in Indonesia," said Mr Wahyu. "We only debunked hoaxes that were related to news and current affairs, and not every piece of information that went viral on social media. If we wondered whether something was fake news, we verified it quickly before posting it online."

As the Jakarta election campaign grew more heated, hoaxes became even more visible and dangerous. Even Tempo became a victim, with people using its trusted brand to spread rumours and lies, he said.

Tempo also had live fact-checking supported by 15 reporters during the three public candidate debates held during the election.

"We checked every claim made by candidates and published our fact-checking via Facebook and Twitter," said Mr Wahyu.

He suggested that media play a major role in fact-checking and debunking hoaxes and misinformation. Crazy-sounding stories that go viral should be challenged and debunked as they can have an impact so many people, he said.

Zakiar Hussain, political editor of The Straits Times in Singapore, said the media had a responsibility to educate people about fake news and if they find fake news, to correct it. Information should be traced back to the original source as far as possible. Media professionals must independently verify the accuracy of information before posting it, and investigate the source and assess its credibility.

The fight against misinformation and the promotion of accurate journalism has become a key mission of Google, through its News Lab.

Google's stated mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. For Google to create a more informed world, it takes journalists and technologists working together, said Irene Liu, who leads the News Lab in Asia Pacific.

"Journalists have a huge role to play in countering the false information and reporting the right information to the public," said Ms Liu, who previously worked as an investigative reporter and data editor at Reuters, and at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

"The core of journalism is reputation. So, part of our job to do is to make sure that your voices are right. That's why Google News Lab was founded."

Google News Lab works with the news industry to improve trust in journalism and fight misinformation online. The internet has empowered people across the world to create content and to engage in eyewitness reporting on a scale never before possible -- but it is has also made it harder to separate fact from fiction.

"We want to help newsrooms benefit from the wealth of information available by working with journalists to verify information online using the latest digital tools and tactics," said Ms Liu.

So far, Google has trained hundreds of journalists across Asia Pacific on the latest methods for verifying information online, she added.

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