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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

The time to tackle fake news in the Arab world 'is now'

False information poses a genuine threat to security of the region

Social media operators are under pressure to halt the rising tide of fake news posted online. AP Images
Social media operators are under pressure to halt the rising tide of fake news posted online. AP Images

Fabricated facts and fake news reports must be tackled to prevent the erosion of public trust in the Arab world.

That is the assessment of a government minister and social media companies who now believe a dialogue about the problem has to be had.

From propaganda outlets in rebel-controlled areas of Yemen to unreliable hearsay exchanged on Facebook and WhatsApp, the issue rears its head in daily life.

In a Twitter post last week, Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, urged online companies in the region to match more hardline efforts being taken against the issue elsewhere.

“The Western world is interested to a great extent in dealing with the phenomenon of fake news,” he said in a tweet.

“In addition, the role of social media in publishing it (the fake news) and promoting it is a sign of concern because of the damage and impact this generates.

“Therefore, a similar Arab dialogue is required and necessary.”

The lines of definition between social media giants such as Facebook and more traditional publishing companies continues to remain blurred.

Companies like Twitter have described their sites as a platform for discussion - enabling communications rather than publishing content.

The distinction is crucial because while publishers are legally responsible for posted material, communication companies are just conduits and cannot be held liable.

Critics have claimed the confusion continues to assists the proliferation of fake news.

They say social media firms have to behave more responsibly and take action against those abusing their sites.

According to the BBC World Service Group, more unstable countries or regions with questionable election coverage, as well as those facing political uncertainty, are most at risk from the fake news phenomenon.

“In the US, fake news has become a soap opera with a different dimension due to the Trump presidency and his battles with his own domestic media,” said Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group.

“States can often have an interest in a regional dispute, thousands of miles away, so everyone has to be careful of what they click, consume and share among their friends.”

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Read more:

Facebook identifies political influence campaign ahead of US midterms

UAE's Gargash warns Houthis over Yemen oil tanker attacks

How fake BBC news is being used to manipulate tension in the Gulf

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In April this year, Facebook partnered with the National Media Council, the UAE's media regulator, to launch a campaign to increase news literacy and help people spot fake news.

“We know people want to see accurate information on Facebook – and so do we,” said Nashwa Aly, head of public policy for Facebook Middle East and North Africa.

“We also know misinformation is harmful to our community and makes the world less informed.

“That's why we are working hard to fight the spread of false news on Facebook through a combination of technology, people, and working with external entities.”

Facebook removes content that violates community standards, such as nudity, fake accounts and graphic violence. It also claims to actively reduce the distribution of false news, including by allowing users to report potentially offensive or illegal material.

Google meanwhile said it was continually taking new steps to counter the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality and sometimes offensive content online.

It sad that that while only a small percentage of the traffic viewed daily was fake, it acknowledged that it was more damaging.

“We're deeply committed to ensuring quality news and information is online,” said a Google spokeswoman for the MENA region.

“We’re working hard to make sure search results return the most relevant information possible for every query, and to work alongside the news industry on initiatives that help to maintain trust in quality journalism.”

Mr Angus added: “Some websites are passing themselves off as neutral when they have a particularly political view point and don’t share the same independent news perspective.

“They are not reporting facts; they are reporting opinionated content. We’ve spoken a lot on the role of Russia in promoting the rise of fake news, and that tells you how inter-connected the world has become in its news media.

"That’s why trusted news brands are so important, as consumers can rely on them to not do this kind of stuff.”

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Beyond the Headlines

Nick Webster interviews Jamie Angus on how the BBC is combating fake news. Listen here:

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