The media has always been an essential factor in democratic processes due to its ability to influence the masses. Some British authors in the 19th Century considered the media as the fourth estate of democracy, given the expected watchdog role of the press, which is important to a functioning democracy.
The Decline of Ethical Journalism
However, fast forward two centuries and the situation has never been more alarming for the media community. The decline of this industry has accelerated due to many factors, such as ownership, financial dependencies, ideology, and political bias. Consequently, media weaponization by special interests and shadowy elite groups has become the norm, not the exception.
Of all media activities, journalism was the most influential on socio-political issues. The journalistic profession, which has undergone profound transformations because of digitalisation, is still much needed in today’s information age, where the deluge of information has come at the expense of truth and accuracy. Digitalisation has enabled phenomena like “clickbait,” which creates sensationalised or misleading headlines to attract clicks to an article.
The economic gains and attention-grabbing headlines have turned once-respected outlets into peddlers of unreliable information, rumours, and fake news. Many news media, once expected to contribute to social life and democratic functioning, have become the carriers of a discourse that accelerates social disintegration, xenophobia, and political hatred.
Ethical journalism has suffered in such circumstances, especially since the internet and social media platforms lack mechanisms to shield audiences from false and harmful information. As disinformation spreads like cancer, the world needs professional and trustworthy journalists to bring society’s attention to fundamental issues while providing essential context and social common sense.
Objective Journalism in Reverse
Taking political stances on particular issues is normal for media organisations. Audiences may even choose these outlets for this reason. The ensuing diversity of opinions illustrates a healthy and functioning democracy. However, spreading discord and spewing vitriol in the name of political thought is a frightening trend that has emerged in the past two decades. As a result, some media organisations have no other raison d’etre except fanning the flames of hate and antagonism.
In this scenario, the most minor and superfluous issues can be used to incite political animosity by distorting statements and using false associations. Moreover, these outlets have no qualms about using fake news as sources, even though they are mostly spread through anonymous or phoney accounts. Worse still, other media outlets unashamedly treat such inaccurate and untrustworthy information as reliable, quoting it and analysing it ad nauseam. When fact-checkers expose this disinformation, the news agenda would have already moved on amid the information bombardment, and a new falsehood would replace the last one.
The lack of accountability encourages these phoney organisations to do these malpractices repeatedly. They only care about funding, and they do not seem to be short of it. Advertising revenues are insufficient to explain the business growth of these media organisations. Many believe they receive payments from shadowy organisations overseas, whose sole purpose is to fuel hatred so their political project can survive.
In Türkiye, many media organisations and some journalists proudly define themselves as opposition members while imposing their abysmal understanding of journalism and lack of standards. Still, they feel so entitled that no matter their mistakes, they expect their erroneous behaviour to be absolved because of their oppositional characterisation.
In all democratic countries, a person who breaks the law must face legal consequences. This person cannot be excused because of his/her journalistic credentials. Somehow, many people in Türkiye think there should be no accountability. Similarly, there should be no laxism or preferential treatment when media outlets stoke xenophobia and hate speech. Belonging to the opposition camp is not a Get-Out-of-Jail free card!
A Professional Fake News Cycle
Paradoxically, technology has increased the capacity to produce and spread lies. Nowadays, fabricated news can circulate in seconds. Hate-inducing and demoralising subjects always find a place in the headlines with exaggerated accounts. Audiences have been so intensely affected that the world became perceived as a doomed place with no hope on the horizon, resulting in a complete distrust of society.
At this juncture, the most common form of disinformation in Türkiye targets foreigners. Many of those were displaced by wars and conflicts in the region. The xenophobia fuelled by the media has unfortunately aggrieved their plight.
Turkish authorities have the additional burden of struggling against the disinformation activities that are constantly and systematically applied to these refugees. Almost every day, at least one piece of news is circulating about refugees that contain distortions, erroneous associations, or sketchy information.
The modus operandi is similar. First, media organisations publicise news originating from anonymous accounts on social media. Then, television stations presenting themselves as opposition relay these untruths without editorial examination. The content often contains vitriolic and hostile statements that create fear and panic. Even though the authorities would ultimately debunk this fake news, their negative effects have already poisoned the public sphere. It is time to tackle this phenomenon and find ways to balance free speech and incitement of hatred. Among the suggested measures is to enforce existing legislation to prevent this nefarious phenomenon from plunging the country into violence.
This article originally appeared in the OP-ED section of the website Daily Sabah.