The Times/Kingsley Napley Student Advocacy Competition 2017 launched on 18 May 2017. The title this year is:

'Do we need new laws to combat fake news?'

Back in 2013, The World Economic Forum warned that so called ‘digital wildfires’, that is, unreliable information going viral online (aka fake news) would be one of the biggest threats faced by society.

The most common fake stories we hear about revolve around politics, but we cannot undermine the impact that fake news stories have had on society in general.

One of the main concerns of fake news stories is that they can polarise society, particularly during political events. Leading up to the gubernatorial election in Jakarta earlier this year, more than 1,000 reports about politics and the election were confirmed as hoaxes. One particular ‘fake news’ campaign against the main opposition candidate, Anies Baswedan, read, “If Mr Baswedan loses the election, there will be a Muslim Revolution”. Historically, the Jarkata election has always been ethnically and religiously divisive. However, this bogus claim, along with similar fake stories, exacerbated the divisions in society and pulled cultures within the nation even further apart.

Fake news stories can not only polarise different groups within a nation but also affect international relations. In May 2017 Qatar’s state news agency claimed that its Twitter account had been compromised, and hackers had published fake comments allegedly made by the emir criticising aspects of US and Arab Gulf foreign policy towards Iran. Although the news agency was quick to label the comments as false, this did not prevent neighbouring countries Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt severing diplomatic ties with the country.

On a more social level, never has society been so obsessed with the ‘celebrity’ concept. Celebrity scandals dominate the tabloids on a daily basis. Even though some of these scandals are so far-fetched that it would seem obvious they’re not real, we’ve already seen, in an earlier blog in this series that most readers are unable to distinguish these from real stories. Only this week, a cruel hoax tweet went viral claiming that iconic movie star Clint Eastwood had been found dead at his home. We can only imagine how Eastwood and his family might react to the story, but perhaps the scene from Dirty Harry where he reprises his ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ speech might go some way here.

Fake scandals often seem more believable than the truth and have led to racism, harassment, intimidation and damage to reputation. A recent story about a jewellery shop in the US published by Buzzfeed, claiming that the shop replaced real diamonds for fake ones, led to a fall in the brand's stock by 3.7% and caused irreparable reputational damage and loss of business.

Fake news through social media

The biggest factor behind the success of fake news stories is their high level of social engagement. In the lead-up to the 2016 US election, the public’s engagement with fake news through Facebook was higher than through mainstream sources.

Social networks connect us with other like-minded people. Our networks of ‘friends’ on Facebook, or ‘followers’ on Twitter, generally consist of people who share our values and beliefs. These values may be social, political or economic, and the information we share through these networks helps to define who we are and what we believe in.

This identity is then reinforced the more we read similar news stories shared through our social network, confirming our ideas and biases. And herein lies the underlying force that propagates false information and further polarises society’s partisan. Quite ironic really, considering Facebook’s sole mission statement has been to ‘connect the world.’

According to Damian Collins, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the increase of fake news is 'a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general'. With fake news sites increasing their revenue through digital advertising, the credibility of media organisations and public trust in journalism is under threat.

Matahari Timoer, one of the members of Jakarta based Internet watchdog ICT Watch said “Our digital life has entered a dark age, that is why we need people to do their part as a lantern to light up, and fight this dark period”. So are we, the audience, responsible for filtering what we read and share, or should the responsibility fall on the government?