BEIRUT: The term “fake news” was named the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year in 2017, with a 365 percent rise in usage compared to the year before. But despite increasing attention to the phenomenon, many working in Lebanese media consider fake news a symptom of deep-rooted problems that have existed in the region for decades.
“Whenever we talk about fake news we should talk about fact checking,” said Layal Bahnam, project manager for the Maharat Foundation, which is holding a conference on “Fake News and Media Viability” starting Tuesday.
“Media and journalists are not doing their job. What’s fact-checking? It means not just taking the statements of politicians as they are,” she said.
Bahnam said the rapid changes in the media landscape over past decades have led to an increase in the prevalence of fake news.
“Two decades ago you would read the newspaper or watch CNN and that would be your access to news, so that would literally be the only way you would access information,” said Nour Samaha, a Beirut-based freelance journalist working across the region who will be speaking at the event Wednesday.
“More often than not there would be some sort of bias, or it would be a snapshot of something rather than the entire picture, but as an audience trying to get information on what’s happening this was the only way that you could do it.”
When she began her career in 2006, “your only access to the information would be the people on the ground and having access and contacts with them,” Samaha said.
Since then, the public’s access to information has increased drastically, much of it disseminated via social media, which has made it possible to report in ways that weren’t possible when Samaha first began working in the field.
She said she still believes the old methods are the best way to gather information as a journalist. “Nothing can beat field reporting,” she said. “You need to be on the ground.”
In Syria, with limited access and an almost constant stream of unverified reporting coming out of the country, the traditional tools of a journalist have been tested.
Samaha has frequently reported from regime-controlled areas – itself a potentially problematic undertaking given question marks over journalists’ freedom to operate unsupervised by the state – and says that social media offered a window into perspectives that were out of reach.
“If I go in on the government side and I’m reporting what’s happening there, it’s equally important to me to see what the opposition is saying with regards to that specific area because of the access that they have on the other side, and I think that’s the only way that you can get the complete picture,” she said.
However, the surge in information available via social media is a double-edged sword for reporters.
“For a lot of journalists that are based in the region and journalists reporting on the ground, we’ve now found a large majority of our time being spent on trying to make sure that the actual information gets out in order to counter the false claims,” Samaha said.
“I spend a lot more time ensuring that everything that I write, every single sentence can be stood up, I have the relevant sources for it, I have the relevant evidence.
“I’d say my work has become a lot stronger because of the level of scrutiny,” she added.
Social media has, according to Samaha, “been able to amplify voices that would not have been heard otherwise ... On the flip side, we’ve fallen into this trap where we’re moving in our own echo chambers and that can be problematic because it’s more about emotional response rather than factual response.”
Such confirmation bias is certainly applicable to Lebanon, according to Ayman Mhanna, director of the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom.
“We have a validation media, which means if you are closer to supporting a specific camp you will automatically click to reading newspapers that support your camp or TV stations that support your views, which means that you are more likely to believe everything they say and you will automatically doubt anything said by another media outlet even when it’s backed by facts, evidence and data,” he told The Daily Star.
Mhanna points to the recent attack on Ali al-Amin, a political candidate in south Lebanon’s Bint Jbeil, by a large number of men reportedly affiliated to Hezbollah.
Mhanna said the issue was politicized by some looking to discredit Amin, citing discrepancies in the reported number of men who attacked him. “Whether it’s one person or 20 million people, if a journalist and a candidate is being attacked during an electoral campaign, there is a problem,” he said.
According to Mhanna, this is not a new phenomenon. “The core of the issue is political. Fake news in Lebanon and the region predates by decades the social media era ... Our newspapers and media outlets, most of them, are political mouthpieces.”
This phenomenon, Bahnam said, undermines the Lebanese state.
“It’s really a breach of democracy, what’s happening in the media now. All the spaces in the media are now for sale. This is something that’s against the law first, but the supervising committee is not doing its job.”
“The traditional media ... is part of the political system and everyone is benefiting from the system.”
Bahnam has identified issues across Lebanese media outlets.
“Only 2 percent of what’s in news bulletins is investigative reports. There is a lack of investigative reporting in Lebanon and of course in the region. This affects the quality of journalism.”
Another issue, she said, was an over-reliance on anonymous sources.
“We want journalists to start thinking about their role, especially in doing their initial job of fact-checking and being critical, not just taking politicians’ statements and presenting them as facts,” Bahnam said.
Both she and Mhanna said separately that they believe that independent media outlets could be key to combating these problems.
“We believe there is a big opportunity for independent news platforms to have a role in the region,” Bahnam said.
Mhanna advocates a threefold approach to countering fake news.
This primarily involves “more accountability of current media outlets,” as well as “supporting the alternative, independent new voices in the media from all camps.”
Lastly, Mhanna said he believes “we need to significantly strengthen the media and information literacy effort so that the general public starts to discover that there are critical ways to approach media consumption.”
The “Fake News and Media Viability” conference will be held April 24-26 from 10 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Hamra, Beirut.