‘Fake news’ – the fact that this phrase will enter the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, less than a year after it was first uttered is testament to the power of this phenomenon. Globally, false news and media manipulation in order to bring about social change are on the rise as never before. Not only do the public have to contend with biased, opinionated reports of misinformation- with an increasing lack of the journalistic ethics that used to be standard- but they now have to be aware of active, deliberate disinformation, designed specifically to divide societies. What is underway is little more than a revolution.
Within the Western Balkans, the situation is exacerbated by the situation in which the rapid rise of digital media (and the ability to not only consume a wide range of media 24 hours a day, but also to create it) arrived at a point at which the region had not yet established its own democratic processes, a functioning civil society and a rigorous means of critically discussing the information produced and the related social and political issues.
Revolutions carry with them opportunities and also danger. The inherent danger in this particular revolution is that the people being affected by it are overwhelmingly unaware of it; with a lack of tools to effectively discern opinion from fact, bias from truth, disinformation from belief, the young population of the Western Balkans are both the victims of the upheaval and also perpetuators of its problems and risks.
In today’s world, just as we teach children literacy in their native languages, we also need to teach our young people media literacy, both as consumers and as producers of content. Each comment on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc takes young people out of the role of passive receiver of information and places them onto the stage and into the role of ‘media producer’, without knowing at the time of posting a comment, how influential their comment may be, how far it will be shared, what the consequences to themselves might be, or to what extent one comment can have a far-reaching effect. Journalists need to be trained in the basic ethics of reporting and the social responsibility that their work carries – to distinguish between ‘what the public wants’ and ‘in the public interest’, to check facts, to offer educated argument and to not be seduced by being the first to ‘break’ the story, regardless of the truth and to engage in thorough investigative reporting with accountability and transparency.
Governments and rulers have engaged in media manipulation for decades. The diffuse media of 2017 continues to do so in ever more subtle ways, and also, in many cases, by individuals without even being aware of it. We therefore need to act now to educate the next generation of media producers and consumers. Teachers, civil society organisations, governments and journalists need to cooperate on this in order to approach the issues from all of the relevant angles and to create a synergy of skills, values and drive which can address the dangers effectively. We need to share knowledge and methodologies and put these into practice now. There is no point in simply having conferences, legislation or academic research on the issue: the ground is shifting under our feet as we talk and we need to act now. We need bring young people into the conversation about how to approach it, now, and find ways to include critical thinking into curricula and to support efforts to challenge the powerful interests behind fake news campaigns. It is not an easy task, but in order to truly foster a strong civil society, capable of creating a democracy of critical thinking citizens, it is not only desirable as a principle of free expression and access to information, but essential to guarding against deep divisions and hate in society.