'Prebunking', not debunking, a good way to fight fake news

Ivy Jean Vibar, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 03 2017 09:21 PM

MANILA – Instead of debunking wrong claims and fake stories shared on the Internet or by word of mouth, it might be better to "prebunk" them to avert its spread, a media expert has said.

Topics of controversial fake stories such as hate groups should be investigated by news outfits “the way they investigate corruption,” said Singapore-based journalism professor and media researcher Cherian George. 

This as "debunking [fake news] is not very effective," George said during a forum by the Asia Media Information and Communication Centre at Miriam College last week, which tackled “Freedom of Expression during the Post-Truth Era.”

To "prebunk," journalists must give thorough reports complete with context and facts - an antidote to the spread of fake information. 

George added that it is challenging to debunk a lie because some people may find it difficult to change what they know.

“[Some of us believe that] truth will overcome falsehoods…What we have now been forced to confront that…in an open marketplace, it is possible for lies to overcome truth,” he said.

This is not a new phenomenon, he said, with one of the most controversial examples being the invasion of Iraq by American forces during the Bush administration, a war that was “built on lies” that the administration of Saddam Hussein had kept weapons of mass destruction.

The agenda of fake stories “could be influenced very much by the powerful,” George added, looking back on efforts by the tobacco industry and climate change deniers to change what the public knows about the dangers of smoking and the threat of greenhouse gases.

Media practitioners and the public should, thus, be aware that techniques used by parties to spread false information are old ones, and are even taught in communication schools.

“We often make the mistake of thinking that these propaganda are the result of friction between religions and races…this is rubbish. These are manipulated, deliberate campaigns…They are up there with the best communicators and agencies, and use the tools of social media and others,” George said.

Those who spread fake information also take advantage of people’s difficulty to understand risk, and their fear of the unknown, which make them cling to lies that make them feel safe, he said.

Considering this, the media has to work harder to “bring facts to people at the level we need to build resilience.”

News outlets have to understand what is going on and report these in a way that bridges any gaps with the audience who are not gullible. Trust is an important factor as well, he said.

“People have lost trust in their establishments before... media have not given them what they need. We need to get better at building trust in people, and making them realize that we are on their side,” George said.