More than the usual devices, the new strategy is more insidious and yet more apparent: to erode public trust in any “unfriendly” media and its content by branding them “fake”

Public officials and people in other sectors that regularly deal with media have little love lost for journalists and the institution they represent.

Particularly when media does its job of informing the public and shaping public opinion. Expectedly, public figures try to protect their image and interest by pushing their own version of the story.

“Managing” the news has long become an art with publicists using various devices to influence flow of information. Ranging from p.r. techniques to pulling strings of influence. From subtle or outright bribery to dirty tactics such as to sic block-timers and trolls on “hostile” journalists, or in some localities, physically eliminate them.

But the new threat goes beyond all that.

The fresh goal is to destroy trust in the fourth estate and its product. By portraying media as “enemy of the people” that thwarts “progress and change” and defends status quo. By tapping discontent and rage of the underprivileged so they will vent it on media. By sapping media of its strength: its credibility as source of facts and logic on events and issues and as watchdog of people’s liberties and the country’s institutions.

They would substitute the regular media’s content, produced under standards of independent journalism, with their own version stripped of anything that would expose their misdeeds and omissions. U.S. President Donald Trump uses with his Twitter feeds a steady stream of abuse against media and a video on Facebook that gives nothing but high praise for himself, calling itself the “real news,” as opposed to “fake news” of independent media. The sheer gall of switching labels, sticking the honest label on himself.

Obviously, it’s part of the multi-pronged attack on regular media in the various platforms that report the news honestly. As they praise media outlets that report only news and views they like, they brand the rest as bogus. And spread only their “truths.”

Their truths, of course, are what they want people to believe even if they are false in the real world. “Alternative facts,” they say, as if a lie could become true with a different name.

The threats, a few more sinister and imminent than others, seek to undermine the most basic function of the press: to inform and engage in a conversation and test “facts” by verifying sources and actual reality.

1) ATTACK ON ‘HOSTILES.’ Targets are mainstream media although in the United States–where President Trump popularized the term “fake news” and “fake media”–those in his crosshairs are the “liberal” media: newspapers, TV and cable networks and digital news sites critical of him. News outlets with conservative or “right” leanings and pro-Trump media such as Fox News, New York Post and Washington Times are in a sense also mainstream. But they routinely defend and laud Trump–and they’ve been spared in his diatribes.

What’s going on in the U.S. should tell us what could happen in other countries where free speech and free press is guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the Philippines, President Duterte’s sniping at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN doesn’t come close to Trump’s hostile moves. In Cebu, Mayor Tomas Osmeña’s tirade on “unfriendly” media isn’t as fierce as in the past, notably during the election season. The Trump style of in-your-face bullying of reporters and shotgun blasts at media: those we have yet to see in our setting.

2) SHOOTING DOWN THE LIE. Trump has repeatedly used the retort “fake news” to any adverse story, at the same time smearing the news outlet. It’s his shield against any accusation, a defense that politicians elsewhere in the world might use in due time.

Or variations of ramming down the lie. Under the same precept about repeating and repeating a false accusation, the lie is wrapped in the denial, which offers no specifics.

Fact-checking helps dispute the lie but at the same time promotes it. Researchers tell us that online repetition of the lie is much higher than exposure of the facts refuting it.

3) MEDIA THAT SUPPORTS YOUR BELIEF. What would happen if people consume only the media that conform to their views and beliefs? In return, their media outlets of choice would bring only news and opinion their readers want, shutting out material that give the other view.

The base constituents of Trump are an example. In serving that market, such news outlets as Fox News and Breitbart News dish out only content that promotes the right-wing ideology of their audience.

Balance, accuracy, fairness are out the window. Their audience hears only one side, its side. How does that work for an informed citizenry?

Larger than the threat of getting fake news is a public accepting it with the knowledge, or without the care, that it is false.

Cebu media has operated on the belief that its audience wants the full and correct story. After almost three decades of consuming media that were unabashedly partisan, Cebuanos, starting in the late ‘60s, have been getting “independent” news and information.

4)‘POLICING’ THE INTERNET. As internet practice demonstrates, regulators can do little to make online writers behave like mainstream journalists. Internet strengths are its multi-platform access, immediacy, and anonymity and absence of filters. Which are also its bane, when it comes to cracking down on fake news.

The recent fruitless hunt for the “administrator” of the website “Cebu Flash Report” to account for its bogus bomb story that caused panic among Lapu-Lapu City residents, tells us that online regulation is far from satisfactory.

Mainstream media can be useful in promptly correcting false stories. With its online presence, newspapers and broadcast stations can be the reliable source on settling questions of fact and dubious claims in bogus news on social media.

The best foil: staying as the more reliable media

The consumer can easily identify and locate the regular media. Its writers and editors don’t use aliases and can be held accountable for what they write. They are trained in the standards of verifying a story: whether it has the earmarks of truth or is partly or totally bogus. It has a mechanism for prompt correction. It explains and clarifies whatever mistakes it makes.

Which to trust then: A bastard of a story that’s peddled anonymously or by a masked writer in a ghost website? Or an authentic story from a legitimate news organization, print or online, that hangs its name with its product and nurtures its reputation day by day through the years?

A no-brainer. Yet, increasingly media content churned out by writers who operate in another universe or haven’t come out of their grandma’s basement manage to mislead the public. The glut of fake news should impel regular media to be more diligent in (a) spotting bogus stories of others and (b) avoiding mistakes in their own stories.

Read also: Fake news inflicts more damage in social media. What can be done
Read also: Who profit from fake news and what can curb the abuse

(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)