Implications of “Fake news” as word of the year to freedom of expression

November 7, 2017, 9:33 am

“Fake news” has acquired certain legitimacy after being named word of the year by Collins, following what the dictionary called its “ubiquitous presence” over the last 12 months.

Collins Dictionary’s lexicographers, who monitor the 4.5bn-word Collins corpus, said that usage of the term had increased by 365% since 2016. The phrase, often capitalised, is frequently a feature of Donald Trump’s rhetoric; in the last few days alone he has tweeted of how “the Fake News is working overtime” in relation to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections

Trump has used the term frequently, and claimed last week to have invented it – “the media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all [the] terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake’ … I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years, but I’ve never noticed it,” he told an interviewer. This etymology was disputed by the dictionary.

Collins said that “fake news” started being used in the nineties on US television to describe “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Its usage has climbed since 2015, according to the dictionary, and really took off this year, with its ubiquity to be acknowledged with a place in the next print edition of the Collins Dictionary.

A number of other words related to politics and current affairs were also in its list of the words of the year. “Echo chamber”, defined as “an environment, especially on a social media site, in which any statement of opinion is likely to be greeted with approval because it will only be read or heard by people who hold similar views”, has seen a “steady increase” in usage over the last five years, while “antifa” saw its usage rise by almost 7,000% following violent clashes between anti-fascist protesters and the far right, particularly in the US.

According to Iain Levine the Deputy Executive Director, Program at Human Rights Watch It’s not that the decision itself is bad – it certainly reflects the reality of our political discourse. But the growing ubiquity of fake news poses serious challenges for the human rights movement since it blurs the lines betwement since it blurs the lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies.

More broadly, facts get a pretty raw deal these days – much of the US’s climate change policy is based on bad science, for example. And one study found that fake election news generated more engagement on Facebook than real stories from serious media outlets. And neuroscientists warn us that, while facts don’t really convince, stories (which may not always be “true”) do.

The growing disregard for facts is a problem for human rights activists.

In his wise book, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder warns that, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” To be truly convincing as human rights advocates, our stories and narratives, whether about Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing or those cruelly deported from the US to Mexico, must be credible, authentic, and rooted in fact.

Both fact-finding and story-telling start with witnessing. Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, dedicated his life to the obligation to give witness and speak out in the hope that, by imagining the unthinkable, we would ensure it never happened again. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” he would say.

With each encounter with victims, human rights activists must bring a commitment to meticulous fact-finding, the sifting of evidence, the corroboration of details, and the pursuit of a truth that will ultimately lead to justice.

But the problem is broader. The purveyors of fake news seek to make facts fungible, and to render the world a cacophony of competing hyper-partisan narratives where adjudication becomes meaningless and the only truth flows from supporters of the demagogue.

Political leaders around the world have begun to deploy the label “fake news” as a smear on fact-finding by journalists, human rights organizations, perhaps even prosecutors. In doing so, they seek to break the link between evidence and culpability, making it more difficult to ensure those accountable pay for their misdeeds.

Every day, ordinary people risk their lives and liberty to tell their stories and share the truth with human rights activists because they know that the alternative is silence and continuing injustice. If we fail to protect the sanctity of facts and truth, we risk losing their confidence – and our effectiveness.

League of Justice


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