Monday, 29 November, 2021

Fighting Digital Disinformation

Dr. Kundan Aryal


The audience is the meeting point between the society and media. Media cater to public information needs or forms the audience by providing interesting materials. In both of the cases, it is a society where the audience lies. The centrality of information provided by any media outlet develops a dependency on the audience which results in cognitive or visible behavioural effects in longer or shorter times.

There is a long history of media criticism based on the argument that the media appeal to the mass, and the mass gets the kinds of content they want. So the media continue to give it to them. However, over a century, journalism has become a profession with ethical values and norms. Though media cover the modes of communication beyond journalism, the term ‘mass media’ has been taken as synonymous with journalism. It is because journalism has the responsibility to make public informed. But different power centres attempt to influence the media for their benefits and interests. As David K. Berlo argues that no one is self-sufficient. As per his argument, one must communicate with others to affect in a way that fits his/her own purposes.

Causes of disinformation
One of the causes of spin of disinformation would be the interest of unprofessional communicators who try to sell the content and gain economic benefit out of that. Here excessive commercialisation could be blamed for undermining professional norms and values in journalism. Another reason could be an individual's irresponsibility and poor understandings and taste. Since social media have secured an intimate place in every society and they are established as a major communication tool, every individual needs to be rational.

There are more powerful sources of disinformation around the world. They exploit both those above-mentioned trends to grab all power. Political and commercial interests capture the means of communication to disseminate the message for their benefit. They hold control over the communication flow and exert discursive power of media through their resource and access power.
If the journalistic processes are compromised, there will be a wave of disinformation. There could be a debate on identifying public interest and taste. Since the relationship between public taste and media is a circular one as of the chicken-egg analogy, there could be differences in finding it. It is not that easy to say whether the public taste determines the media or vice versa. The answer lies somewhere in between with public taste being both a cause and effect of media. But the truthfulness and fairness are the capstones in the field of professional journalism. Despite the widespread teachings of normative principle in journalism, an ideal which believes the news is synonymous with truth, and the normative expectations such as practices of collecting, verifying and rechecking facts.

Against this backdrop, one can finger out different interest groups, unethical journalists or the individuals to be blamed for spinning the cycle of disinformation in the world. But, the most effective way to tackle disinformation would start from both audience and the institutional media outlets that provide edited contents. Out of 192 complaints of breach of code of ethics filed at Press Council Nepal (PCN) last year, 163 were against the non-institutionalised online news portals. The PCN terms such online news portals as unauthorised as they were not officially registered. Such online portals are visibly functioning with a planned way of disseminating disinformation.

The Nepali media landscape comprises institutionalised mass media outlets which include traditional as well as new media. They are at least aware of journalism codes of ethics. There are 7874 newspapers registered but only 919 of them - 19 per cent - were published last year. Above, 950 television channels, which broadcast via satellite, terrestrial and cable, are operating in the country. As many as 740 FM radios are operating. But most of the television and radios are in acute existential crisis.

According to the Council, the number of online news portals has reached 2,965. Of them, only a few of them have gained the public trust and established them as reliable mass media. Many of them are struggling for survival. In general, most of them know about the professional standards of journalism. But those non-institutionalised, fly-by-night online portals are one of the major sources of disinformation. Most of the complaints filed at NPC are against the online news portals.

Online news portals
In this context, the major players of disinformation, misleading images, and fake news in Nepal are non-institutionalised online news portals and social media. The trend has been supplemented by so-called YouTube TV channels, which are not registered at the PCN. Fact Check Nepal, which is run by Kathmandu based Centre for Media Research, reveals that in most cases, the fake information has been circulated as viral information from social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and has been followed by online news media.

As newspapers are declining, the public is getting dependent on internet-based media. All forms of traditional media are losing their influence in this age of media convergence. In 2013 as many as 108 newspapers and 116 online news portals were registered. In 2019-20, just 5 newspapers were registered whereas the number of online news portals reaches 2,138. Journalism is now heavily dependent on the internet. Hence, amidst the prevalence of fake news and disinformation, the journalists associated with the internet-based media need to be more sensitive.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)