In 2013, the World Economic Forum warned about the so-called “digital wildfires” (unreliable information / or being interpreted as fake news) as one of the biggest threats faced by societies and governments. Its influences penetrated everyone’s daily life from microscopic to macroscopic level, as it could cover anything from playful hoaxes to belligerent propaganda or incitement to violence.
Fake news rooted with the malicious-free-speech (hate speech) in nature, and in practice causes tremendous damage to democracy, sustainable governance, moral and ethical system and the freedom of speech and expression. It creates public terrors and misjudgment on particular subjects with deceptive and false information. The most identical cases were the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and the Brexit referendum. They showed how fake news could mislead people’s voting preference on national policy and election result. Some argued that fake news did play a critical role in radicalizing our local citizens (particularly the younger generation) and indirectly brought extreme domestic violence in Hong Kong.
Apart from its influences on a macroscopic level, it could be used as a prime weapon against individuals and any type of institutions by discrediting them via defamation cum hate speech, for examples, 16 years old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was subject to torrent of online hatred and false claim attacks after her speech in the United Nations and awarded as Time magazine’s Person of the Year; even the Hong Kong Red Cross, a respectable charity with a long history of social and medical services, was being attacked by fake news in 2016.
Here’s the problem: those cases reflect that fake news fundamentally is a type of vicious deceptive and mischievous misinformation, dissembling the trust among persons, organizations and institutions, threatening democracy, governance and the protection of human rights. The saddest truth is that falsehoods almost always beat out the truth on social media, as it penetrates further, faster, and deeper into the social network than accurate information.
MIT’s scholars – Vosoughi et al – has published a research named “The Spread of True and false News Online” on a world-top scientific journal Science about the effectiveness and influences of fake news in 2018 by comprising around 126,000 verified true and false news stories distributed by around 3 million people on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. It gives out a clear but uncomfortable message – fake news is much more powerful than true news on social media, since it spreads 6 times faster and 10 times deeper than true news.
Also, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust has conducted a comprehensive research project relating to annual survey on internet security and trust. The result indicates 86% of surveyed participants had fallen for fake news at least once, with 44% frequently did; hence showed 10% of Twitter and 9% of Facebook users had closed their own account as a direct result of contacting fake news; 49% of surveyed felt distrust with others due to fake news influences, so that they decided to remove more personal information online; and 39% did use internet in a more selectively and careful way, in order to protect their personal safety.
Countering fake news is an important step to protect our free speech and free press. In the past few years, more countries have promulgated designated laws/policies and launched public campaign against fake news. Although they have received some valid and respectable criticisms and suspicious from human rights groups and scholars about the (1) violation of freedom of speech and press, (2) the possibility of being use as a political tool against opposite camp and (3) the power and effectiveness of law itself, it does not necessary mean we should stop taking progress on countering it, especially when it is under an evolving progress – changing from a static state like fake words and edited photos to a more aggressive form like Deepfake videos with the help of AI technology.
As stated by Elon Musk, “We can't have, like, willy-nilly proliferation of fake news. That's crazy. You can't have more types of fake news than real news. That's allowing public deception to go unchecked. That's crazy.” It is vital to understand that it is not an article of anti-free speech and press, but anti-fake news adhering to malicious-free-speech.
It must be clear that there is a distinctive difference between these two concepts. It is time for us to formulate anti-fake news campaign and policy. A healthy democratic society does embrace a high degree of free speech and press; however, if it is exploited and used in a malicious manner that causes damages to others, we must intervene in the name of justice.