International journalists spoke at USF St. Petersburg last Thursday about the global trend of fake news and the dangers of reporting on the politically corrupt.
“The real question is: What is fake information? And what is fake news?” asked moderator, Rob Lorei of WMNF Community Radio 88.5 FM. “It’s sort of like the old definition by the U.S. Supreme Court about pornography: ‘We know it when we see it.’”
When it comes to fake news, it could be a rapid and continuous high-balling of the multi-channel. Or a complete lack of commitment to consistency, which can come from governmental and non-governmental sources. Overall, fake news has the power to distort objective reality to the point of changing the outcome of major elections.
But for journalists in newly democratized countries, fake news is the least of their problems. Journalists around the world have been subject to government censorship, imprisonment and even death in the line of duty.
“Being a journalist in Paraguay, especially in certain regions where organized crime took over the government… being a journalist there is… very dangerous,” said Fernando Martin Boccia Torres of the Última Hora.
Journalism used to be a highly respected profession, but recent polls in America indicate a shift. Most of the American public now distrust the media as much as the politicians they cover.
Though President Trump recently coined the term ‘fake news,’ fake news is not just an American phenomenon. Journalists around the world are constantly fighting the flow of false information. Some are even attacked for their work exposing crime and government corruption.
During Paraguay’s 2018 general election, journalists began fact checking all candidates in an effort to deter the growing trend of disinformation. Torres said journalists found a majority of politicians told at least one or two direct lies during campaign discourse.
“In my experience with fact checking in Paraguay, most of the lies came from the politicians,” said Torres. “They’re the ones spreading disinformation.”
Since Paraguay became a democratic state in 1992, Torres said there have been around 17 journalists killed in the line of duty; most by organized crime who specialize in drug trafficking. All but one case has been closed. There have actually been five journalists killed in Paraguay since 1992; one in 2001, 2007 and three in 2014.
During the Australian election in May, polls showed the Labor Party was on track to win the majority of seats in Parliament.
However, after some disinformation began trending on Facebook claiming the Labor Party planned to enact a death tax if elected, the leader of the Labor Party was forced to issue a statement saying the information was false and denied any plans to initiate such a tax.
Despite denying the claim, it was too late. The fake story’s virality resulted in Labor losing majority of the house, costing them the 2019 election.
“I think it [the death tax] spooked a lot of baby boomers, those in the 60-plus age group, and studies show the digital literacy of those in that age group could be improved,” said Lisa Martin of the Guardian Australia. “Adults didn’t grow up with the internet, so a lot of them are taking what they’re seeing at face value.”
According to Samphors Hang of the Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia, independent journalists especially fear for their lives.
Two journalists for RFA (Radio Free Asia) were imprisoned in 2017 and 15 independent news sites, including RFA and VOA (Voice of America), were blocked two days before Cambodia’s 2018 election by government forces.
Ghana, like many countries, is also facing a scourge of fake news. According to Senior Operations Officer and host of GBC Sunrise FM, Mohammed Zunurene, most false information is of a political nature.
As a republic with a multi-party system, journalists in Ghana must navigate between the two dominant political parties: the NDC (National Democratic Congress) and the NPP (New Patriotic Party).
“You have the New Patriotic Party giving us facts and figures about a particular issue and then you have the NDC also coming around with different figures,” said Zunurene. “So sometimes it really becomes difficult to figure out who is telling the truth.”
Parliament passed a new open records law earlier this year which will give institutions in Ghana more time to collect the facts and figures necessary for journalists to determine their authenticity.
But as it stands, said Zunurene, there is no law or mandate requiring institutions to give such information to the public at this time.
News anchor and reporter for the Vanuatu Daily Post’s radio station: 96 BUZZ FM, Kizzy Esta Kalsakau, said fake news isn’t as much of a problem in her country.
“In regard to fake news, we don’t have that because everybody knows everybody,” said Kalsakau.
Recently, however, Vanuatu has had to deal with a wave of fake news concerning their Prime Minister.
After three weeks of investigative reporting, said Kalsakau, journalists found the spread of disinformation originated from a number of Facebook pages based in Indonesia.
News organizations alerted the people of Vanuatu through a series of multi-channel coverage and the Facebook pages were soon taken down.
According to Kalsakau, due to a series of investigative reports from news organizations in 2017, Vanuatu became the first country in the Pacific to jail 16 members of parliament convicted of corruption.
Journalist for Yle (Finland’s national broadcasting company), Olli Seuri, said Finland is a little ahead of the curve when it comes to fake news.
However, Finland had its first real wave of fake news in 2015 during their refugee crises and again in 2018.
According to Seuri, the majority of the disinformation was spread by a prominent Finish alternative news site called Mitä Vittua? (What the Fuck?), who were later accused of inciting hate speech and libel.
“I think it comes down to being aware,” said Seuri. “When you know how the system works, when you know what the problems are with our institutions or our problems with information and society, then you start to help people read this type of fake material better.”
The event was hosted by the Open Partnership Education Network (OPEN), a USF St. Pete based organization with the intent of bringing the world to the Tampa Bay area. OPEN’s mission is to create a smarter, better connected community that learns and grows together.
Partnering with OPEN is World Partnerships, a St. Pete based organization founded in 2000. World Partnerships hosts global leaders under the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
The IVLP have brought over 200,000 new generation leaders to America, including Margaret Thatcher and Mahatma Gandhi.
World Partnerships has also been responsible for bringing over 5000 international visitors from 194 different countries to the Tampa Bay area.
World Partnerships collaboration with OPEN has brought leaders and thinkers from around the world to the Tampa Bay community. Their joint goal is to foster a more connected world through professional and educational encounters.