Monthly newsletter: October 2019

For me, the split screen images of the past few weeks were two dramatic news events happening more than 8,000 miles apart.

In Washington, D.C., House Democrats began an impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump pressured a foreign leader to help with his presidential campaign. And in Hong Kong, more than four months of unrest turned increasingly violent with the October 1 Chinese National Day protests and the government’s imposition of an emergency ban on face masks.

The two unrelated events had one thing in common; the rapid proliferation of disinformation and “fake news” through social media sites that served to further the political and societal polarisation.

In the U.S., if you are a Trump supporter, you can subsist on a steady diet of misinformation and discredited stories, like how the “whistleblower” who started the impeachment inquiry is actually a Democratic operative, how former Vice President Joe Biden and his son corruptly profited from their Ukraine dealings, and how the entire process amounts to a coup attempt by the “deep state.”

And here in Hong Kong, I’ve seen fake news swirling on social media sites falsely alleging that an elderly man beaten by protesters had died, that local “fanatics” were planning a 9/11-style terrorist attack in Hong Kong, and that the protests were all being secretly funded and enabled by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Endowment for Democracy.

In the past, it was easy to dismiss or ignore the wildest crackpot conspiracy theories. That was back when a few major news outlets dominated the agenda, when people still trusted the now-maligned “mainstream media” to get the story straight, and before social media were able to supply rocket fuel for the zaniest fringe ideas. But those days are long gone. Online platforms now allow people to retreat into their own information echo chambers, only hearing—and disseminating—whatever fits their preconceived notions.

The irony for me is that when the Internet and social media sites first became popularised two decades ago, they were seen as democratising tools, empowering ordinary citizens by breaking up the monopoly on information exercised by the mainstream media in the West, and by authoritarian regimes such as China. But what we have seen instead is the collapse of the old gatekeepers has led to a new kind of information anarchy—let a thousand nutty conspiracy theories bloom!

How to combat this torrent of rumour, nonsense, disinformation and craziness is one of the most vexing questions facing journalists, and journalism educators, today. We are unlikely to ever get back to a system where a few reputable media outlets once again become trusted by the vast majority, not now that anyone with a mobile phone and an Internet connection can spread fake news with a few clicks. And journalists also have enough real news to cover—is it really their job to try to debunk every rumour swirling around?

In the long term, the problem will really only be solved by news consumers, who have to learn to do their own fact-checking and not to believe every unproven or wacky item that gets forwarded to their inbox. And that starts by people being willing to get out of their partisan corners, and to be willing to believe something they might not agree with.

At the moment, I find it awfully hard to be hopeful.

Keith Richburg
Director of the JMSC