Fake news throws up real problems

Shakir Reshamwala

Misinformation and disinformation have been around for as long as information has been, but the advent of social media has made it easy to reach the largest number of targets in the shortest time and lowest of cost. This is why fake news is now a potent scourge that is ravaging nearly every society. While “alternative facts” are a mere annoyance in some places, in others they have caused political and social turmoil and even influenced elections.

Kuwait too hasn’t been immune to this phenomenon that is giving journalists, politicians and decision-makers around the world a tough time. Where once the government would have ignored rumors and baseless allegations, various ministries and public bodies in Kuwait nowadays routinely refute reports circulating on social media. In this era of viral videos and images, nipping a rumor in the bud is seen as effective before it grows legs. But it seems to be a losing battle.

The Arab Media Forum held earlier this week focused on “verification of media sources and countering of fake news amid a revolution in information technology and new media tools”. Minister of Information and Minister of State for Youth Affairs Mohammad Al-Jabri warned participants that it is of utmost importance to stand up to the spread of fabricated and false news that influence the youth. He also stressed on the need for adhering to the principles of credibility, transparency and professionalism to provide balanced news coverage.

The minister made a point by singling out the youth for special attention, as this segment of the population constitutes a majority in Kuwait. This is a generation that has never known a life without mobiles, Internet and the ubiquitous cellphone camera. The mainstream media are no longer the gatekeepers of information – any event that takes place is swiftly recorded and disseminated raw – without fact-checks, balanced viewpoints, background info or even spin.

This voracious appetite for news has resulted in online news bulletins and social media pages proliferating in Kuwait with tens of thousands of followers who instantly share anything they find interesting. The government has tried to regulate online news sites by forcing them to register, but the task is too gargantuan, and private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat are very hard to control.

Another important thing to consider is that the largest news providers are no longer legacy newspapers or news channels – they are Google and Facebook. Even though they are the primary sources for news consumption these days, they are desperate to cast themselves as mere aggregators to avoid being regulated and held accountable for spreading fake news or libelous stories. Of course things are changing and governments are clamping down to make them answerable, but again it’s a fraught task to pin the blame on these tech giants that have utterly disrupted the hegemony of traditional media.

To sum it up, fake news is a local and global challenge, and everyone must be aware to not fall in the trap of believing everything that one reads or hears. But unverified and salacious stories seem to be here to stay, which means the more-cautious mainstream media is literally hung out to dry – unlike the laundry that once billowed in the breeze under the blazing sun in balconies, but can now lead to a KD 500 fine by the Environment Public Authority, which is also cracking down on “visual pollution” caused by houses painted in bizarre colors and not the drab earthen tones or pastels of neighboring homes. Now this is not fake news.

By Shakir Reshamwala

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