Media leaders call for global effort to tackle threat of fake news

(From left) Moderator Jonathan McClory, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, CNN International's senior vice-president and managing editor for Asia-Pacific Ellana Lee, South China Morning Post chief executive Gary Liu and Philippine news portal
(From left) Moderator Jonathan McClory, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, CNN International's senior vice-president and managing editor for Asia-Pacific Ellana Lee, South China Morning Post chief executive Gary Liu and Philippine news portal Rappler's chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The rise of fake news is an existential moment for journalism, and there needs to be a combined global effort to combat it.

Such a move is crucial, especially with the rise of technology platforms which have accelerated the spread of falsehoods online, media leaders said yesterday.

They were at a panel discussion on fighting fake news at the annual Milken Institute Asia Summit held at the Four Seasons Hotel and attended by global leaders in government, business and media.

Ms Maria Ressa, chief executive officer and executive editor of Philippine news portal Rappler and a journalist of over 30 years, said: "At no other point in time have we faced a crisis like this. This is an existential moment."

She noted how big-data firm Cambridge Analytica had experimented with peddling disinformation on Facebook in the Philippines during its 2016 election and affected the integrity of the polls. "Journalists are at the frontlines, and we have to fight. But businesses are also at the frontlines, and you need to make choices that enable truth-telling," she said, calling for a global compact to deal with the fake news crisis.

The panel of four explained how fake news targets opinions at the extremes to garner higher viewership, with facts replaced with disinformation and alternate realities.

"If you say something a million times, it can replace a fact," said Ms Ressa. "If you have no facts, then you can't have truth. And if you don't have truth, you can't have trust. And if you don't have trust, you have no democracy."

Ms Ellana Lee, senior vice-president and managing editor for Asia-Pacific at CNN International, said there had to be a clear definition on what constitutes fake news.

"When it comes to the President of the United States, he uses 'fake news' as any news or information he does not agree with," she said.

The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez said the rise of fake news can be a bane as well as a boon for media outlets. "With so much fake news out there, our audience is saying to us, 'We need help to figure this out', to sift out fact from fiction," he said.

 
 
 
 

He shared how, yesterday morning, a video allegedly showing birds falling out of the sky in Indonesia due to the haze went viral, and some readers wondered if it was real. He said the paper is trying to verify it.

"It is both a boon and a bane in the sense that because there is so much fake news, there is a shift towards more credible voices. That is where professional media groups have a role to play," said Mr Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/Tamil Media Group.

He added that it is down to news outlets to get the truth out in a "credible and responsible way" to address concerns that members of the public have. "If we don't, fake news could undermine trust in public institutions. And it could undermine society's ability to agree on the basic facts upon which we can then have a discussion on the issues," he said.

"Fake news presents an opportunity for us in the media to really step up. We can't do all of this on our own. Businesses, governments and society will have to do their part. But what we can do is to show audiences the critical importance professional newsrooms play, in making democratic discussions possible."

This is what 30 newsrooms around the world plan to do on World News Day on Sept 28, said Mr Fernandez, who is also president of the World Editors Forum, a global network of editors.

Looking ahead, he added that with new technology that can produce say, deep fake videos, it will become even more difficult to figure out the fake from the real.

But, he noted, the younger generation is "a lot more sceptical", having grown up in an environment of fake news. Older audiences, who grew up in an era of greater trust, are more likely to share fake news.

Responding to a question from the floor, CNN's Ms Lee said that presenting balanced news is as important as addressing fake news.

She cited the Hong Kong protests, which are entering their 16th week under the constant scrutiny of an international audience.

"For us, it is really important that we don't only say, 'Police have fired tear gas'. We have to be responsible and say, 'Police have fired tear gas, protesters have thrown petrol bombs'. Without one admission, it completely changes the context of what is happening," she said.

Will there be a turning point in the battle against fake news?

Mr Gary Liu, chief executive officer of the South China Morning Post, was doubtful there would be change, unless economies and markets are directly affected.

He said society has not suffered enough economically to understand the harm from fake news.

"You are lucky enough to have the systems of access, and the intelligence to know truth from falsehood," he told the business leaders in the room. "You should start pricing the social impact of fake news into what you do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2019, with the headline 'Media leaders call for global effort to tackle threat of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe