KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 — The federal government's plan to convince Malaysians about what news is real and which is fake faces a major obstacle: public cynicism.
Given the general suspicion that surrounds all things official — from monthly inflation figures to crime statistics — media observers believe that Putrajaya's new “Sebenarnya” portal to weed out “fake news” will battle the trust deficit from the offset.
The portal was launched last week under the auspices of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the government's Internet regulator, ostensibly to provide Malaysians an outlet with which to corroborate news and developments online.
Singapore established a similar website, Factually, a portmanteau of fact and actually in 2012. Indonesia will also launch a “National Cyber Agency” that will include a similar service.
“It will be seen as another obvious attempt to promote their political agenda… there is a generally low level of trust in government sources,” Professor James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Public distrust of government information is understandable, particularly with authoritative administrations that are armed with press laws and media ownership that result in massaged and manicured news.
This was demonstrated in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016 released in November that showed 61 per cent of Malaysians did not believe in the independence of the local media due to political and government interference.
Consequently, governments' efforts to “fact-check” the very news that they are already suspected of influencing “are deservedly met with scepticism”, Dan Gillmor, a prominent US-based digital media literacy expert, was quoted as saying in the SCMP.
Charlie Beckett, the director of the Polis media think-tank at the London School of Economics, told the Hong Kong-based newspaper that such fact-checking functions must be operated independently of governments.
These could be operated either by citizens themselves via civil society groups or by the private sector, though none should be seen as the ultimate arbiter of what is real or fake, Beckett said.
“Even with the best intentions, governments can never be independent, unbiased sources. Only a healthy, open, diverse competition between independent sources can help clean up public information,” he said in the report.
In the age of social media and “viral” news, the adage that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” has gained a nearly-literal interpretation.
“Fake news” per se is not a new discovery, but the term gained a notoriety by becoming a catchphrase of US President Donald Trump.
Trump freely uses it to denounce media outlets and reports hostile to his administration, often with little to no regard for accuracy. As a result, Trump is regularly caught out when his allegations are controverted.
“Fake news” was also a favourite of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who called it “lügenpresse” or lying press in German. Hitler had used the allegations to neuter his critics in the media.
The coincidence was not lost on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who raised her eyebrows when Trump began attacking media reports as “fake news” during their joint press conference in Washington this week.