Fake news in Guyana

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GIVEN the continuous indignation over the prevalence of fake news in advanced societies like the United States, we in Guyana might be inclined to say, “Welcome to our world.” And this is not without justification.

Guyana continues to have more than its fair share of propaganda, hoaxes and misinformation. This is particularly so in our politics; in the actions, roles and contributions of political leaders, their parties and rivals, and contributions from racial groups.

Where facts have historically been discarded and lies retold, the Orwellian efforts to create an alternate universe has met with measurable success in influencing acceptance or rejection of an individual or group, and their contributions. This is a fact that advanced societies are beginning to realise that they, too, are susceptible to. Acknowledging fake news and its consequential impact does not ignore that Guyana is not singular, nor is it a new experience to advanced societies, as evidenced during Adolf Hitler’s reign in World War II Germany and the Cold War era.

But in this Information Age, the potency of fake news is immediate and more lethal, not only for the consequences borne from discrediting persons, but the potential it offers those who seek to discredit issues, credible organisations, and persons.

It is not unusual to find those prone to taking sides to discredit the entire media corps, or specific outlets, when reported actions reflect an image they find distasteful, but conversely expect the media to assist them in communicating their views to the wider society. In spite of the tactic of attacking the messenger, which is usually to discredit the conveyer of the information and absolve the originator of the information from accountability, it is proving to reap dividends.

Now that information and news can be updated, re-edited, re-interpreted, and posted every second of the day, fake news is exploiting technology to disconcerting ends. It is not unusual to see such outlets obliterating or blanketing credible information and sources by altering reality. At the same time, it is not untrue to say news outlets have used their credibility to spread untruths, or twist the truth in order to promote the agenda of its owner; or fail to ensure the credibility of its source, due to the competitive natur of the environment, in order to be the first to break the story.

In the new landscape, U.S media operatives are litigating the importance of maintaining their integrity and the public’s trust. At the same time, their credibility is coming under fire for being the purveyors of “fake news”. With such allegations becoming more and more difficult to grapple with, Guyanese media owners and workers can cite several instances where the powerful have sought to discredit and delegitimise them, and by extension the content of their news, thereby absolving the originators of the news from accountability.

Local media operatives have experienced, and continue to experience, similar vile attacks from former president, Bharrat Jagdeo. Why this is instructive is that the People’s Progressive Party/Civic has presented the image that it has fought for and respects press freedom. Societies around the world have to grapple with fake news as an industry, which has either seeped into, or become a part of, mainstream media. News outlets, persons or organisations with grievances, dislikes or sinister agendas are engaging in communication to undermine and delegitimise others. This sees the deliberate omission of certain facts, or the redirecting, as in editing, of content, altering of images, or doctoring of footage to get a particular point across.

These realities carry consequences. They not only create opportunities to be economical with the truth, but misleading information can be hazardous to the planning and implementation of programmes. It is factors of this nature that undermines acts of cohesion in society. As advanced societies, where media are considered freer and pivotal to democracy, grapple with what can best be described as a virus (i.e. fake news), there are expressions of concern that politicians are reflecting characteristics of leaders in authoritarian societies.

Today, the news media is operating in a challenging and complex environment, where even as it tries to be a credible source, it’s at times held captive to forces, technological, ownership and the prevailing culture. There will always be propaganda and high risk of public manipulation. But even in the face of these, news outlet should not lose sight of the fact that pursuing or maintaining credibility is critical to its respect and survival, and the growth and development of society.