The Straits Times says

Staying engaged with real news

The core integrity required of the media in a functioning political system has come to the fore again with accusations that social media giants such as Facebook and Google provide a platform for fake news. Misinformation avowedly helped to sway the American public towards Republican contender Donald Trump in the recent presidential election. Indeed, US President Barack Obama has argued that bogus news stories spread on social media platforms are a threat to democracy. False news reports - for example, statements that Pope Francis had endorsed Mr Trump's candidature - could influence certain voters. A steady flow of misinformation could sway more and thus pose a direct threat to the political ecosystem.

Like counterfeit currency, which undermines the larger financial system within which it functions, fake news subverts the currency of trust which mainstream media relies upon. Yet, unlike counterfeiters who are targeted by the law, the perpetrators of false news often get off scot-free. They masquerade behind the facade of freedom of speech that empowers the individual to comment on issues that impinge on him and others. The result could be the opposite of what freedom of expression intends to protect: access to the truth through information which allows people to make informed judgments about the choices they should exercise personally and collectively, and always responsibly.

Fake news distorts the real world. Some are outrageous, like a report on Facebook that America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration had voted an Asian president the best in the solar system. Incredibly, this was shared widely. Had such fiction appeared in the traditional media, those running it would have been held to account. But the freewheeling spirit and cover of anonymity offered by the social media allow even the most outrageous assaults on reason to be passed off as harmless commentaries. Often opposing views or corrections are not heard because people choose to read only what they wish to or are too busy to notice the diverse views and a range of information common in real news outlets.

It will not do for social media platforms to claim that they are merely channels that provide a social service and allow fake news sites to thrive by collecting advertising revenue. Platforms like Google and Facebook have a duty to weed out those purveying false news for various ends. Otherwise, the social media would contribute to the consolidation of a post-truth world in which a lie becomes plausible the more outlandish and attention-grabbing it is and the more it is shared online. Ultimately, it is the consumer of information who has to be discerning. He or she has to exercise what has been called sceptical activism to distinguish news from hearsay, information from rumour or outright lies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'Staying engaged with real news'. Print Edition | Subscribe