Recent events have put journalism under the spotlight. Political, technological, economic and social transformations are inexorably reshaping the communications landscape and raising many questions about the quality, impact and credibility of journalism.
In addition, information is being contaminated by orchestrated campaigns to spread falsehoods through misinformation. This disruption is accompanied by the manipulation of half-truths through misinformation, and by the voluntary or involuntary exchange of misinformation.
The digital age has been described as a "golden age for journalism". New models of cross-border collaborative reporting and access to diverse sources at the click of a mouse. However, it has also brought unprecedented ongoing challenges and structural changes to the news industry with the rise of propaganda or the rise of social media.
In addition, the lines between fact, entertainment, fabrication and fiction are increasingly blurred, and once disinformation is released, news distribution systems make it impossible to try to curb the virality of the publication.
In the age of communication, getting information is very easy. With the development of the media, and especially the internet, we have a wealth of information at our disposal. Accessing information has become easier, cheaper and more dynamic, thanks to the number of sources covering both national and international content.
In addition to newspapers, magazines and television, social media is a widely used medium, especially by young people. On the other hand, through social media and messaging, the spread of misinformation and fake news is increasing. In today's highly globalised world, we can find out what is happening in every corner of the world, practically in real time. However, there are a number of factors that are transforming the communications framework, challenging the quality, impact and credibility of journalism.
Many actors are engaging in strategic communication to achieve illegitimate ends through the propagation of certain news or information that is harmful to their target audience. In this context, disinformation is generally used to refer to the deliberate dissemination of dishonest information intended to confuse or manipulate people. It is particularly dangerous because it is often well organised and reinforced by automated technology.
Moreover, disinformation campaigns tend to be more prevalent in situations of national crisis or uncertainty. They are usually used as a weapon to destabilise a country, damaging public opinion or even interfering in election campaigns as we saw in 2016 in the United States.
'Fake news' or false information is published by websites looking for followers and more users to consume their content. The aim is to confuse readers into believing the information and sharing it. In this way, more readers agree to consume the content and more money is earned through advertisements. Monetisation is multiplied according to the number of visits the publication receives, so the more visits, the richer they get.
Taking advantage of the moments of uncertainty and confusion that arise from crisis situations, whether economic, health or migratory, the number of fake news or 'fake news' stories skyrockets due to the lack of truthful information. Fake news tends to spread through social networks, where users share it at lightning speed, making it practically impossible to stop it from spreading. Moreover, access to official and verified information is reduced when the authorities of the country in crisis make it difficult to access it in an attempt to control the uprisings and drag the masses in their favour.
Cuba is a clear example of the damage that can be caused by fake news and disinformation. Even more so, as we explain in Atalayar, when the authorities have cut mobile internet service and almost nobody can afford a wifi connection. The internet blackout is causing a standstill in some of the country's activities, which went online because of the pandemic. Few people have access to the networks and know the real situation, as videos of citizen uprisings are circulating that in many cases are fake, delocalised or passed off as new images when they correspond to the first manifestations of the pandemic.
We are facing a swampy terrain for both "sides of the conflict", both for the Cuban population, tired of the lack of freedoms, the situation of poverty and the health crisis caused by COVID-19, and for the power-hungry Díaz-Canel government. In this situation, 'fake news' is multiplying, increasing uncertainty and the lack of information even more, generating a more conflictive space. These are mostly accompanied by a photograph or a video, appealing to the emotions of the receiver.
One of the most recent ones was denied by Efe Verifica: "A 13-year-old boy was killed during the massive anti-government protests in Cuba, as shown in a photograph", is totally false. The image actually shows a minor who was wounded by a stray bullet in Venezuela after a gang clash.
The truth is that the global spread of online falsehoods poses a serious threat to fundamental elements of democratic society, including social cohesion, public health and political stability. A healthy democracy requires credible information so that citizens can make informed decisions.
Legislative and regulatory decisions on how to respond to fake news come at a critical time, when political and media freedoms are under threat around the world. Digital platforms are the new frontier in this global assault on freedoms.
In the current context of disinformation, the greatest danger is not unjustifiable regulation of journalism, but the impact on people's beliefs about the information they receive. In this scenario, people are likely to take as truthful any content that is endorsed by their social networks, leaving coherence aside.
We can already see the negative impacts of this on public beliefs about health, science, interculturality and social issues. Beyond the polarisation and radicalisation of society, when receiving this type of false and manipulated content, we can find fake news such as "ingesting chlorine cures coronavirus", which can be deadly.
For this reason, it is of vital importance to fight against this weapon that threatens the stability of countries, social cohesion and public health.