The prevalence of fake news continues to be an important concern for 56% of people worldwide, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020.
Fake news has also affected trust in mainstream media, but at the same time, it presents an opportunity for publishers to highlight their role as sources of reliable information.
“Scourge of our era”
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a conference earlier this year. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Disinformation is a scourge of our era that tends to piggyback on any crisis, particularly a global one like the current pandemic: From conspiracy theories about how it began (in a Chinese or American lab?) and how it spreads (boosted by 5G networks?), to fake news about the reappearance of seldom viewed animals in ports and canals, to bogus remedies (some deadlier than the disease itself), the internet is awash with it.Tamar Shiloh Vidon, Journalism Lecturer at Sciences Po and Former Editor at the International NY Times
Despite the unabated spread of fake news during the pandemic, it has also been seen that in matters of life and death, people tend to rely on brands that have built a reputation for being trustworthy.
Publishers, ranging from biggies like The New York Times and The Washington Post, to many local outlets, saw record jumps in traffic and subscriptions as the virus spread. In the UK, legacy news brands remain extremely resilient; the BBC and the Guardian have emerged as the most popular news sources.
The same has not been true for partisan sites though. “The desire for the latest facts on the virus appears to be curbing interest in the more opinionated takes from partisan sites, which have defined the media landscape in recent years,” noted NYT’s Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper.
“Good wakeup call for some people”
Craig Silverman, Media Editor of BuzzFeed News told Digiday that the pandemic has made people look at the problem of misinformation more clearly than ever before. “It is a good wakeup call for some people who viewed this stuff as a political messaging” issue. He explained that people can now see how coronavirus-related misinformation can lead to significant safety and health issues.
In a way, this crisis presents an opportunity for publishers to drive home the importance of rigorous journalism and reaffirm their value as credible sources of information. Many publishers across the world have been trying to do that by collaborating on innovative campaigns and projects.
“Gatekeepers of the truth”
Early on during the crisis, the top news publishers in India joined hands for such a campaign. They came out with a series of ads and editorials (in different Indian languages) ranging from those that focused on the dangers of fake news and the value of high quality to journalism, to raising awareness about the virus.
Following this, The Times of India Group and the Dainik Bhaskar Group, two of the largest Indian news publishers, launched a video series to spread awareness about fake news.
The project titled, Kaun Banega, Kaun Banayega, (roughly translated ‘Who fools, who gets fooled’) is a series of short videos in the quiz show format. They use humor to highlight the menace of fake news and educate readers on the importance of reading the newspaper.
Two films out of the seven-video series garnered nearly 3M views, according to Exchange4media. The campaign ended with 4.3M views across all seven films.
“Fake news is a modern-day malaise brought on by social media. It ranges from the silly to grave ‘forwards’ having repercussions that affect the social, economic and cultural fabric of nations,” said Sivakumar Sundaram, President, Revenue, BCCL (publisher of Times of India), commenting on the initiative. “As gatekeepers of the truth and as a leading newspaper company, The Times of India takes on the responsibility of educating people on the need to follow real news and not forwards.”
More recently, The Times Group launched the ‘Want My Paper’ campaign. Its mission is to encourage people to read newspapers by underlining their role as sources of authentic and incisive reporting.
“[Newspapers] have an active network of legitimate sources, expert reporters and authoritative editors who look at every piece of news before it goes out and impacts the audience,” reads a statement from the publisher. “While this does not guarantee 100% efficiency, it does minimize the risk of large-scale misinformation by bringing in accountability.”
“Working together is the best way to deliver results”
In the UK, the BBC got major news and tech organizations to collaborate on the Trusted News Initiative (TNI) last year. The partners currently include: AFP, BBC, CBC/Radio-Canada, European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Facebook, Financial Times, First Draft, Google/YouTube, The Hindu, Microsoft, Reuters, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Twitter and The Wall Street Journal.
The initiative aims to protect audiences and users from disinformation, particularly around moments of jeopardy, such as elections. It was used to tackle disinformation during the UK 2019 General Election and the Taiwan 2020 General Election.
More recently, the TNI has been identifying false and potentially harmful coronavirus information through a shared alert system. It allows the partners to alert each other on any piece of disinformation so that the content can be reviewed promptly by platforms. At the same time, the publishers ensure they don’t unwittingly republish disinformation.
Looking ahead, the initiative is now extending its efforts to combat the spread of disinformation during the US presidential election. It is also expanding its global network. New organisations joining the TNI for the US Election include The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
“Disinformation is one of today’s great harms. It can undermine democracy, create division and distort public debate. Tackling it is a pressing priority,” said Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC. “That’s why it is so vital that TNI is successful. It has had a remarkable start and I’m pleased more organisations are joining the fight against disinformation. In a world of increasing division, working together is the best way to deliver results.”
“Some people have tried to turn the term ‘mainstream media’ into a form of abuse to undermine credibility, but we are on the public’s side and will fight tirelessly to get high-quality journalism to as many people as possible.”