Erna Mahyuni

Erna tweets too much on @ernamh. Angry Sabah native, slave to her dog/cat and blogs at ernamahyuni.com

FEBRUARY 14 ― “Fake news.” What a catchphrase. Thanks to Donald Trump, it no longer means “news that is inaccurate” but “news that clashes with my currently held views.”

It's interesting that the government is currently looking at legal recourse to supposedly combat fake news but the question remains: who really decides what is fake and what is real?

The thing about news reporting is that it is supposed to be impartial, objective.

Trouble is, humans are not really wired to be without bias.

It seemed simple enough to define news as sticking to the facts but what happens when facts are disputed? Such as, for instance, the fact that vaccines have not been conclusively found to cause autism.

Yet anti-vaxxers reject that fact. Instead, they blame Big Pharma for supposedly hiding the truth that vaccines do more harm than help.

Independent researcher and technologist Aviv Ovadya said in a Tweet: “We are careening toward a future where the ability to distort reality shakes the foundations of democracy.”

Ovadya predicted the fake news crisis of 2016 and says that things will only get worse.

In an ideal world, people would use their rational judgement and make decisions based on objective, calm reasoning.

The reality is that we are an irrational species ― driven by urges, distracted by fancies and damningly selfish at heart. Altruism isn't a natural trait; we are not born inherently good.

Compassion, people forget, is a choice.

It is increasingly apparent that people are not easily able to discern between what is true, and what they believe to be true.

In John 18:37-38 of the Bible, Jesus had a talk with Pilate where the latter asked a question that still reverberates through the ages and is still relevant now: What is truth?

Now, more than ever, the media is called on to be gatekeepers, forced to constantly ask of themselves, of their sources, of the public ― just what is true? What is not?

It is especially difficult in Malaysia where culture and belief permeate society to the point we rationalise decisions coloured by prejudices as well as personal interpretations of faith.

21st century it may be, and still it is possible for a citizen to be hounded on charges of blasphemy and making public what should be private ― such as one's own faith or what a person does carnally.

It is right that citizens are being more critical of the media, more demanding where content is concerned. Yet the role of media has never been so much to give the citizens what they want; it is their role to figure out and deliver what citizens need.

What the media needs is more, not less, freedom. But in an age where the spectre of fake news looms  it seems as though the media will likely be muzzled. When that happens, what flourishes instead are those who do not understand the importance of due diligence, verifying sources and putting accuracy above speed.

Let us hope then that any legislation made to weed out falsehoods doesn't end up strangling whistleblowers and killing the actual gatekeepers of truth.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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