Editorial: Of fake news and invented facts

“...but no one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.”? James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

It is almost instinctual nowadays for the average individual to believe unquestioningly what he or she may see in or hear on the print and electronic media. How often have we heard the affirmation “But it must be true, I read it in the newspaper” or of others clinging to the grossly inaccurate belief that a statement is not defamatory merely because it has been previously published on television or radio.

Such a context provides fertile ground for the propagation of what has come to be known in recent times as “fake news”; defined as deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional media or, more commonly, via social media.

While the term itself may be of relatively recent vintage (it was named as 2017’s word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries and is much favoured by Donald Trump), the concept is certainly not new. In this era of post-truth, Benjamin Franklin wrote stories of “scalping Indians “ working with the English in order to sway public opinion in the colonies in favour of the American Revolution in the eighteenth century, the notorious blood libels of the Middle Ages against the Jews and the 1968 “War of the Worlds” radio spoof by Orson Welles suggesting an alien invasion of Earth provide further examples.

The cauldron of an electoral campaign is yet another context in which fake news may assume some relevance and the front-page story in yesterday’s issue of the Barbados Advocate under the banner headline, “No Dirty Tricks”, affords a poignant instance of this. It is reported there that a poster advertising a community rally in the constituency of Christ Church East Central now represented by Mr. Ronald Jones has been defaced on social media to suggest that free beer and wine will be available to attendees of the event while it invites the reader to “come let us BUY your vote”.

A suitably incensed Jones remarked, “If you promote something …and many others promote it and it takes an exponential surge across the place, people accept it as gospel … and don’t care what you say after, you’re the one that is distorted, not those who have distorted the reality…”

He is right. In our view, the poster in its altered form constitutes an unjustified defamatory imputation that the hosts of the event contemplate the commission of a criminal act under the applicable electoral law and thus could result in civil liability for those who publish it. Moreover, it may also attract criminal liability under the Computer Misuse Act.

This form of misconduct further demonstrates the urgent need for a code of conduct to be devised in order to regulate the communication of information during the upcoming electoral campaign. Of course, given the modern prevalence of communication through social media that prizes anonymity above all else, such regulation will be difficult to police, though not at all impossible.

And it is not that the culprits might shelter under a claim to the fundamental right of free expression. Apart from being expressly constrained by the law of defamation, no one has the right to falsely shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre. Or, for that matter, recklessly to attribute bad motives to a political opponent.

Barbados Advocate

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