Recognising reliable media: Fake news is a toxic threat to our world

The initial horror provoked by Friday’s massacre in Christchurch may have subsided slightly but the anger endures. That anger is exacerbated by the rise, the return really, of unhinged right-wing intolerance and aggression.

The atrocities perpetrated by these actors seem particularly incomprehensible today as their counterparts on the left are less active than they once were. The right, in this cycle of history at least, have the stage to themselves. The New Zealand killings, those in Utrecht too, served an invaluable purpose.

They shone a light into the darkest corners of the dark web and the fantasies indulged in that oubliette of hate, racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious extremism and intolerance. The killings, and plans by Facebook to change encryption systems that facilitate the privacy criminals crave, mean we, as individuals or states, can no longer indulge the softly-softly response to how social media facilitates runaway lunacies.

On this page yesterday Fergus Finlay pointed out that in the aftermath of Christchurch a prominent Irish figure claimed via Facebook that the killings were a “false flag” act.

In that post, it was claimed that massacres were intended to “incite fresh ISIS attacks, create chaos and fear, allow the globalists to take more control... a la 9/11”.

The first question raised by this nonsense is how could a person almost 20,000km away from the event know so much? However, the far more worrying question is why do so many otherwise rational people believe this foaming-at-the-mouth guff? That post was amplified by myriad fellow travellers who offered lists of atrocities carried out Islamic militants in recent weeks — as if they had any relevance to Christchurch.

Psychologists have identified that many of those who carry out these atrocities crave notoriety. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has shown the way by promising to withhold that questionable laurel.

“You will never hear me mention his name,” Ardern promised yesterday. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others, I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them... we will give him nothing — not even his name.” That was a powerful reaction but more is needed.

Coincidentally, this is European Media Literacy Week and a campaign — Be Media Smart — has been launched to help identify unreliable sources of information — just like the Irish ‘false flag’ fake news. The programme is intended to strengthen people’s understanding of media by highlighting the skills needed to evaluate content across all platforms.

Evidence, especially the last White House election, demands a media literate population. Research confirms that need: 83% of Europeans think fake news threatens democracy; 73% of EU internet users fear pre-election disinformation, while 68% say they see fake news at least once a week.

Apart from climate change, our inability to insist on social media standards that enhance humanity rather than undermine it is the greatest threat we face. The threat is that great and the Be Media Smart campaign is a valuable response to it but we will need many more. Disinterest is not an option.

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