On August 21, 1835, an intriguing teaser appeared on the front page of the New York Sun announcing a series of articles revealing the supposed discovery of life and even civilisation on the moon. As promised, the articles—six, to be exact—authored ostensibly by Dr Andrew Grant, and publicised as reprinted stories from “a science journal,” started to appear four days later.
With hand-painted portraits of giant “man-bats” and other peculiar hybrid creatures wandering around their “ruby amphitheatre,” the fascinating details of the alleged scientific findings by Sir John Herschel, one of the leading astronomers of the day, created a buzz like never before. The Sun successfully cashed in on the hype; its circulation peaked and outnumbered that of its rival, the Times of London, making it the best-selling newspaper in the world.
Yes, the story was nonsense. And, everyone at The Sun knew it. The editor of the paper also knew it would take months for someone to find out the truth because Cape Town, where Sir Herschel was based in, was not a short trip.
Eventually, the rival papers debunked the stories. The whole saga was a wakeup call for the western press. The editors realised the need to uphold newspapers' reputation as a credible source of news. In the subsequent decades, the press became increasingly sensitive about adopting impartiality and objectivity as its impeccable traits.
Now, thanks to the internet, fake news has once again become profitable. Not just those Macedonian teenagers whose fake news factory was credited as a factor behind Donald Trump's triumph in the last US presidential election; but mainstream media outlets have also been accused of “chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity.”
As parasite news portals in Bangladesh sprout like mushrooms thanks to increased internet penetration, we, too, aren't immune to this pervasive outbreak.
Spare the online news portals and social media posts. Websites of certain established newspapers and TV stations have consistently run unsubstantiated reports citing ambiguous sources. They are so determined to boost their traffic that they often resort to “clickbait” at best, and outright fake news stories, at worst.
A Bangla daily in 2009 made international headlines by republishing a report of The Onion—the famous (or notorious) satirical publication—that the Apollo moon landing had been faked.
“We thought it was true, so we printed it without checking,” the then associate editor of the paper confessed to The Time magazine. That was inadvertent, and the paper registered an apology and retraction afterwards. But they were unlucky; now many get away with even more serious blunders.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. The online version of a Bangla daily republished a satirical report by World News Daily saying a Pakistani man was sentenced to death for farting in a mosque during Ramadan. Also, consider the news about Unesco's alleged certification of Islam being the world's most peaceful religion or Imran Khan's alleged incendiary comments about the Bangladesh cricket team. These stories are among the thousands that went viral—shared and re-shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times, translating the traffic into profit.
Unfortunately, we see such ludicrous stories going viral all too often. In the process, quite a large number of people are fed with dangerous misinformation.
In the face of this outbreak of fake news, if the mainstream media fails to provide the desired credibility and truthfulness, the point of having a rigorous press becomes invalid. The vacuum of trust created by this phenomenon may result in public apathy towards press integrity.
In this context, the mainstream western press may have found a way out. Against the backdrop of growing decline of ad revenue, the rise of clickbait journalism and fake news sites, and the blistering attack by populist politicians, they didn't stop doing what they do best. When Donald Trump went low by singling out their legitimate reports as “fake news,” they went high.
They furthermore pledged to “rededicate” themselves to the core journalistic mission. They kept doing what they're good at, only with more robustness, caution and vigilance. When CNN became aware that one of its stories was not credible, it not only withdrew the story and issued an apology but also accepted the resignation of three high-profile and Pulitzer-winning investigative journalists. CNN did so only for the sake of upholding its credibility.
The result is inspiring. The Washington Post has become profitable once again; while other media outlets are firing journalists and curtailing their operations, the paper is recruiting new faces. The New York Times' subscription has hit a new record.
The fake news epidemic is a watershed moment for global journalism. While some consider it as a black episode of the history of the press, it is also making journalism great again, as did the Great Moon Hoax 182 years ago. People are now realising the value of good journalism, and are ready to pay for it.
The quicker our media understands this truth, the better.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.