In an impassioned address to a joint meeting of Congress last week, French President Emmanuel Macron railed against “the ever-growing virus of fake news, which exposes our people to irrational fear and imaginary risks.” That tabloid journalism stirs public passions and tills the soil for erratic, knee-jerk political behavior is nothing new. Look no further than the explosion of the USS Maine, an American naval ship, in the port of Havana in 1898. Even as the sinking remained a mystery – if anything, the evidence suggested a technical malfunction – the 19th century yellow press hastened to spill an ink of blame on Spain, using unverified facts and scandalous headlines to catapult Washington into the Spanish-American War.
At its core, fake news of today is no different from the older iteration; unmoored from reality, fake news sows seeds of disinformation and begets chaos. What has changed is the scope of impact. With the advent of internet and social media, fake news – as well as hostile groups and states perpetrating it – have gained a new platform, making the need to fight against the virus of “irrational fear and imaginary risks” ever more acute on our end. Yet, the West is not prepared to wage a winning battle against fake news… At least not now, when the only question we find ourselves, our leaders, and fellow consumers of media asking is how to stop the flow of fake news. By obsessing over the ‘how’, we all too often fail to ponder why fake news is able to find so much resonance in the first place.
Do not get me wrong, going after the means and ways fake news uses to penetrate our social fabric is important. This means clamping down on illicit foreign funding that makes dissemination of falsehood possible; holding Western-based social media and telecommunication corporations to the loftiest security standard to ensure that cases of identity impersonation and bots are outliers rather than the new normal; and identifying government-backed propaganda bullhorns, such as Russia Today and Sputnik News, accordingly.
The ultimate solution, however, lies in recognizing that although news might be fake, issues and problems that lead people to believe them are very real. These issues include an education system that does not prepare citizens to be skeptical towards media and double-check sources. The world where people are so tired of uncertainty, that is is simply easier for them to buy into the black or white narrative of fake news where blame is most often levelled against one person. The best way to stemming the flow of fake news is through addressing these issues at home.