If one takes a comprehensive look at the history of journalism, it becomes apparent that the spread of news media is inherently linked with the advent of new technology. The invention of the print press, the arrival of electricity, and the proliferation of the World Wide Web have all been key milestones in shaping the industry. Journalism itself is a product of modern history,shaped by the politics of the places where it works. Contemporary journalism in the developed world is a complicated mix of old print media and new social media. The largest and most reputed publications compete in the distribution of print paper and are also vehemently engaged in the tumultuous landscape of social media discourse. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and similar sites are the new battlegrounds of ideas, and stakeholders of all agendas are finding ways to propagate their narratives here with significant profit. The ease of distribution, the absence of regulation, and the insignificant entry costs allow anyone with a video camera and a voice to become a modern independent journalist. However, these same factors are also resulting in a mediascape of saturation and misinformation. One simply has to see the scars sustained by western media during the five-year-long tenure of former President Donald Trump in the USA to see a critical fault of new media laid bare. The inescapable two words, "Fake News".
In liberal democracies, journalism is based on the ideals that knowledge is essential, human expression should be free, and reliable information is instrumental to good governance in society. But not everyone in the open battlegrounds of new media journalism will be a component of these ideals. We live in a time where the spread of information is so prolific in magnitude that it becomes almost impossible to separate content of value from the white noise of advertisement and propaganda. Groups with vested interests are quickly developing ways to camouflage their ideas into mundane viral content packages. They integrate their agendas into the rising social media influencers' content and reach an audience who are young, highly impressionable, and might be largely unaware of the true nature of the content they are consuming. Stakeholders who partake in such acts range from billion-dollar worth multinational conglomerates trying to sell products, to powerful world governments trying to spread propaganda about their country. For example, one of the more alarming developments in new media journalism is the tendency of China to co-opt western social media influencers into spreading positive messages about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They aim to grow better relations with the people of Europe and America and further their scope of business, while simultaneously whitewashing their undemocratic practices and human rights violations. The Times UK published a comprehensive article titled "Beijing funds British YouTubers to further its propaganda war", discussing how such practices occur. Conversely, hugely popular YouTube channels such as PragerU, which is owned by an American conservative right-wing think-tank,are creating content that appears to be educational whilst simultaneously being apologetic of the current failings of capitalism in the western world and also downplaying the issue of systematic racism in American society.
Though the situation may seem bleak and dire, there is an alternate perspective to be taken here. The rise of misinformation, false news from bad actors, and content with disguised agendas also leave open room for true journalism. Fake news is good news for trustworthy and reliable journalism since it presents a chance for the news media to show society once again why it is needed: to separate the truth from the lies, expose propaganda for what it is, and speak out for the rights of the common citizenry. The digital age is a chance for journalism to reinvent itself. The internet presents massive competition to mainstream media but also provides pathways for new business models such as online subscriptions, memberships, and collaboration. Most importantly, it provides journalists with the ability to feel the pulse of society and be more diverse, relevant, and engaging than ever before.
However, all that still isn't enough to tackle the onslaught of misinformation and fake news. Fundamental changes need to occur in the education system that provides future generations with the tools and mind-set to separate news from propaganda and information from advertisement. Massive initiatives need to be undertaken by consumers and owners of new media platforms to regulate their platform to identify and properly label their content for what it is. They have to empower the audience to make better judgements and decide for themselves what to believe in and who to trust.
Apon Zahir, Research Intern, Centre for Governance (CGS).
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.