There is no ‘cure’ for so-called fake news problems but there are ‘remedies’

We should think of the issues like medical doctors do

Fake news is not going to go away. Intentionally misleading, false news stories with cherry-picked or made-up facts have been with us from the beginning of modern-day journalism, if not longer.

Whether we like it or not, sensational statements, hoaxes, lies, grandiose claims, conspiracy theories and alike are all integral part of the “market place of ideas.” With native ads and shoddy journalism in the mix, we know that inaccurate news and information will stay with us.

Finding solutions to the so-called fake news problems is a lofty goal, of course, but perhaps it is not realistic, or even futile — if “solutions” should mean to eradicate falsehood from the media world.

This may sound odd, but we need to tackle the issues surrounding the misinformation ecosystem like medical doctors think about influenza and common colds.

Just like flu viruses, false information organically spreads quickly in so many different ways (we say ‘going viral’ for a reason) in different forms and types.

Flu symptoms are often hard to distinguish from common cold symptoms; sometimes it is also really hard to tell fake news from real news, entertainment and promotion because they seem to have the same characteristics.

Misdiagnosis is particularly common during the initial stage of flu outbreaks and you can say the same thing about breaking news stories.

What’s the point of this analogy?

When faced with patients with certain symptoms, most frontline doctors prescribe a combination of medicine that alleviates the symptoms while patients’ own immune system does the work. They believe public health education is an important first step for people to develop better immune system and lead healthier lifestyle.

In our fight against fake news, that immune system is critical thinking skills; frontline doctors are journalists and school teachers. We need to spend resources to integrate news/media literacy education into the core of our school curriculum so that the whole society becomes far more resistant against falsehood. Such effort will also nurture the future generation of discerning journalists, teachers and news consumers.

Media and news literacy education helps learners 1) distinguish facts from opinions, propaganda, hoaxes, rumors, satire, and advertising; 2) identify good journalism and dismiss poor reporting; 3) recognize media and audience bias; 4) become informed citizens who can act on reliable information.

It is the literacy of the 21st century. In many countries, the public’s faith in journalism has been eroding while troubling fake news phenomenon has been escalating. There is no magical cure to reverse the trend. We need a long-term approach and I believe media and news literacy is one of the crucial factors, which is to say, more resources should be spent on education.

We have seen a flurry of foundations and institutions that promised to provide funding to the initiatives that would tackle the current misinformation ecosystem. But so far, most money seem to be going to the supply side — journalists trying to regain trust, programmers developing better algorithms, researchers studying the social media networks, and the list goes on.

But supply side is only half of the problem. The demand side of the equation, the news audience, needs to be addressed as well. How could journalists regain trust when the audience doesn’t know or care what quality journalism should look like? What could we do with those users who move to another platform when the algorithms don’t serve what they want, say from Facebook to encrypted chat apps to share (mis)information?

If we are serious about dealing with the issue, we need an comprehensive approach and help news/media literacy education initiatives with real financial support as well.

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