Why do fake news make the headlines?

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What is fake news and why does it gain traction in today’s media landscape? On CNN Philippines “On The Record,” a panel comprised of media scholars and practitioners, moderated by sociologist Nicole Curato, discusses why fake news matters. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Nicole Curato (@NicoleCurato) is a sociologist. She is a regular contributor for CNN Philippines.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life)  — CNN Philippines challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and moderate this week’s episode of “On the Record.” Our discussion is about fake news — what it is, why it matters, and what can be done about it.

Much has been said about this controversial topic, but there is still much to learn. So, we invited a media scholar, a seasoned journalist, a photographer, and an official from Malacañang’s communication team to provide a range of perspectives.

Here’s what I learned.

First, fake news is not new. This is a continuation of the long history of black propaganda and spin by "political operators." Media scholar Jonathan Corpus Ong reminds us that even more worrisome than the rise of fake news is our complacency towards subtle forms of deception.

It is easy to spot and condemn fake news, but the hard work lies in identifying taken-for-granted lies that shape our behavior and prejudices, and reflecting on how we become complicit in perpetuating these lies. 

Fake news offers a comforting view of the world. It gains traction because it appeals to our emotions, and tells us what we want to hear.

Second, a good way to fight fake news is for journalists to be better at their jobs. I learned this from Ruth Cabal, CNN Philippines’ Senior Correspondent and Mark Saludes of Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines. They explained the rules newsrooms enforce to ensure the quality of news reports, as well as the importance of imposing sanctions on erring journalists.

I find this insight particularly meaningful. There has been much criticism against mainstream media’s bias and profit-driven motives. It is not surprising that a lot people get turned off from "legitimate news sources" because of poor or inaccurate reporting or stories perceived to favor one side.

Fake news, on the other hand, offers a comforting view of the world. It gains traction because it appeals to our emotions, and tells us what we want to hear.

Fake news is here to stay. Engaging, thorough, and credible (not condescending) journalism is our best defense against deception.

We need to be better at asking questions, instead of making quick judgments, on what is true and what is fake.

Third, Anna Marie Banaag from the Presidential Communications Operations Office declared that the Duterte regime is committed to free speech. They advocate self-regulation and responsible social media use. We also discussed how the government reacts when its own officials are accused of peddling fake news.

I support the Palace’s approach to upholding free speech. To censor fake news is to put trust on one body to determine what is true and what is false — and that power can easily be abused to serve particular interests.

Finally, I am starting to be skeptical of the value of dismissing something as "fake." To invoke the label fake tends to constrain rather than open up conversations, to disparage rather than engage. Perhaps we need to be better at asking questions, instead of making quick judgments, on what is true and what is fake.

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Catch “Breaking Fake News” on CNN Philippines’ “On The Record” on Aug. 17, Thursday, 8 p.m.