At no time in the long history of journalism have societies faced the challenge of what we now call fake news.
The first journal was published in ancient Rome, around 59 BC, but the first printed newspaper appeared in Antwerp in 1605. Early newspapers were written and edited by a single person; the publisher. He relied on hearsay as well as on firsthand accounts and his personal views. So much for objective reporting! But as the golden age of newspapers took over in the 1700s, professional reporters and editors began to adhere to broad journalistic ethics and principles. But in addition to serious newspapers, the so-called yellow press made its debut as well; targeting working class readers.
Sensational press became popular in the 1800s and first half of the 20 century in Europe and the United States. During the two world wars, states oversaw propaganda and disinformation campaigns through newspapers and radio broadcasts to influence public opinion. That was the closest thing to today’s fake news phenomenon.
Libel laws were introduced to protect individuals and companies from transgressions by various media outlets.
Fast forward to today’s information revolution manifesting itself in the emergence of new media; Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and electronic news sites in addition to powerful peer-to-peer applications. The internet has empowered millions around the world and as people enjoyed unparalleled access to news, they were now in a position to share and create their own news. Citizen journalists remain one of the most controversial issues facing the media industry today.
But the 2016 US presidential elections has uncovered the new phenomenon of fake news as states and organizations were able to manipulate what we read and shared on Facebook and other social media platforms. Hundreds of thousands of fake accounts were created to disseminate mostly false news and information that influenced public opinion and thought to have affected the way people voted in that election.
This is the kind of challenge that societies had never experienced before. In addition to states’ manipulation of social media outlets, individuals were now in a position to falsify facts and spread fake information. One of the most potent applications that enable individuals to do just that is WhatsApp. We had seen the negative effect of this ubiquitous app here in Jordan recently as Jordanians shared bits and pieces of information related to the tobacco scandal and others. In many cases the information shared, which would start with one individual sharing it with few friends, would prove to be false or largely inaccurate. The government decried the “rumors phenomenon” that had various impacts on public opinion. Those aiming at upsetting public opinion can do so by sharing false information that would go viral in a matter of minutes.
These new challenges have prompted lawmakers to seek to tighten penalties and close the loopholes in existing laws such as the cybercrime law. The problem is that while the intentions are good the outcome may limit legitimate freedom of expression. It is a challenge that all societies are now facing and there are no easy or straightforward solutions.
Last month saw the launch of Almamlaka news television station; a state financed satellite channel that covers local and regional news round the clock. There is no doubt that much work has been done to bring out this channel at such a high standard. But there are a number of points that one must raise.
First, we now have two state run stations and the nagging question is why should the taxpayers finance both? Once Almamlaka was launched, Jordan Television took steps to raise its level as well, which proves that good management and more freedom will produce results.
Second, Almamlaka as a 24 news channel will never be able to cover its costs through advertising. Also it can never compete with commercial TV stations, including JTV, that offer news as well as entertainment programs.
Third, a local news only channel will face challenges and Almamlaka is already struggling with filling long hours with fresh programs. Its strength will come from covering local news and not regional and international ones. But is there enough local news flow to maintain viewer loyalty?
On the other hand Almamlaka’s website deserves credit and it is worth following. At a time when local news sites appear to have more influence on public opinion than say local television stations, it would have made more sense to focus on reforming Jordan Television while directing efforts and finances to making Almamlaka’s websites the most popular in the kingdom!