Caveat lector: Let the reader beware

A man reading the front pages of sports newspapers on display in a kiosk in Barcelona, on March 9, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

False and misleading news, in various forms, has long been a feature of social life.

To find "legitimate" versions of fake news we need not look further than first of April gags.

On April 1, 1950, Aftenposten, the main newspaper in Oslo, Norway, reported that state-run wine stores had run out of bottles and ended up with a large quantity of unbottled wine they needed to dispose of.

People were asked to take a bucket to their local store where they could buy a bucket full of wine at drastically reduced prices. Result: queues formed overnight.

This was a particularly good subterfuge, well-calibrated to the post-war deprivation mentality. It is exactly the context, and the calibration, that is central. To succeed, a hoax like this needs some social apprehension or tension, and the story itself needs to be plausible. Finally, the public needs to be gullible. When the plausibility/gullibility nexus is achieved, people fall for it.

In first of April gags, which are often revealed to be gags the day after, both the producer and the consumer of the news can be said to be complicit, "winking" at one another to mark the item as a joke. Shared pranks can weave social cohesion.

However, fabricated news intended to excite feelings of groups has a unique and perhaps antisocial agenda. Indeed, this is the type of false news that has been the centre of discussion of late, as seen in the recent United States elections and the Brexit campaign.

In these cases, the same elements are in place: a tense or disturbed social context, with actors who see the opportunity to play on this tension for their own benefit. Finally, there is a public who is willing to accept the veracity of the items.

In some cases, the campaigns actively engineered various types of advertising that pointed to the unsavoury side of their opponents. In addition, there were other independent content producers who discovered that they could profit by developing "click bait" items.

Just as with the first of April story in Norway, the authors needed to construct stories that were somehow plausible, and that played on the gullibility of the readers. There needed to be some material that, given the credulity of the reader, could be seen as viable. For the consumers of the items, the false material needed to fit into a preconceived world view. If one has a particular, for example, anti-immigrant predisposition, then a well-crafted article that supports this idea can be accepted as valid. Indeed, we are unfortunately predisposed to accept things that confirm our biases.

In today's fast-paced media world, we can programme our devices to flash the latest headlines. The news feeds can come from legacy sources that fulfil the greatest traditions of journalism, or from the personal computer of a profit-seeking teen sitting in Macedonia who spins out click bait articles.

This brings to centre stage another dimension of false news - the lowered threshold for information distribution. The Internet and digital media dramatically challenge the gatekeeping function of traditional media. This is not, however, the first time we have had to deal with a new technology that gives access to vastly more information.

In a study of the printing revolution in the 1400s, Elizabeth Eisenstein describes the social consequences of the printing press - that era's equivalent to the Internet.

Printing made it easier to spread information. This led to the growth of literacy, the flowering of academic work, and the growth of modern administration. It also unleashed a wave of alchemy, astrology, "magia and cabala" (witchcraft) and other occult arts. The response in academia was to develop a system that allowed a panel of scholars to judge the writings of an individual to check their accuracy and reliability. We know this today as the peer review system.

Bringing this to today's world, a new wave of false information is upon us. As with early modern scholars in the wake of printing, today we need to develop mechanisms with which to judge the validity of information.

These will likely include admonishments for the reader to consider the source, read beyond the headlines, check the authorship, evaluate the supporting sources and eventually seek independent confirmation. The reader also needs to check their own biases. In short, as we collectively sort out truthfulness in digital information, we need to take the position of caveat lector; let the reader beware.

  • Richard Ling is Shaw Foundation Professor in media technology at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline Caveat lector: Let the reader beware. Subscribe