While passing through the living room on your way to the kitchen for snack, your eyes fall upon the television screen, where a news channel headline is emblazoned in front of a bright red background: a leading political party is embroiled in another corruption case. The news anchor repeats the words in her clear and detached, though urgent, tone. Or if it’s a less grave topic — for example, a domestic helper robbing a house and fleeing — it scrolls leisurely across the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. Your mother sits in front of the screen and her eyes are affixed as if she’s hypnotised, her brain absorbing the words with firm conviction. The information stays in her mind and softly influences her thoughts and actions whether she’s aware of it or not: all these politicians are greedy and self-serving, she later confesses to her friend, or perhaps she vows never to hire house-help before running an extensive background check.
Little does she know that the news is false, a rumour spread on Facebook by a sketchy-looking page just to get some quick likes, before a news channel caught wind and decided to report it without verification, as a part of the never-ending competition between channels to be the first to report the information.
Fake news rears its head in other forms as well: I remember falling victim to a doctored news channel screenshot circulating on social media, claiming that the following day would be a school holiday due to the uncertain political climate. And we’ve all seen Whatsapp messages from a khalu or chachu in the family group chat about matters ranging from a desi totka to cure dengue to a criminal gang on the loose. In fact, the problem dates as far back as the 16th century, when King Charles II issued a proclamation against it and even tried to ban coffeehouses, which he viewed as sites of gossip and rumours. In the current day, he might have tried to ban Twitter instead.
The issue of misinformation has spread since then, becoming a 21st century epidemic. But why? There’s “sloppy journalism”, a term coined for irresponsible news outlets who unknowingly report false information due to their lack of research. In some cases, the news is entirely fabricated by agencies or individuals with political affiliations, seeking to defame an opponent. However, fake news is far more rampant on social media, whether due to clickbait titles, forwarded text messages that can’t be verified, or the sheer number of likes and comments. Research claims that the number of likes or thumbs up votes changes users’ opinions, and this is explained by the “bandwagon effect”, a cognitive bias that shows how more popular news items are less likely to be verified by the consumer. This is a problem in the days of Internet bots and passive social media scrolling where people will like articles without even reading them. Combine this with our basic need for social approval, so when someone sees an online article supporting their opinions, they feel a surge of validation because now they have something they can use to say, “See? My beliefs are correct and here’s the evidence to prove it!”. The post would immediately be shared with their family and friends. This is exacerbated by the rapid advancement of mobile phones and social media, so less educated people have sudden access to a vast amount of information and are unable to tell what is real and what isn’t.
You may think misinformation is a source of amusement at best, and an occasional nuisance at worst, but it has had dire consequences. A video clip showing a man on a motorcycle kidnapping a child from the side of a road recently went viral in India, and the accompanying message claimed that such child kidnappers are on the loose in Bangalore. One thing led to another, until people formed mobs and killed around ten people. It was later found that the video was not what it was claimed to be, but part of an awareness video filmed in Karachi. At the end of the real video, the kidnapper returns, drops off the child at the same place, and holds up a sign for people to be vigilant about child kidnappings. This scene was conveniently cut out of the forwarded version.
In another case, a recent photo became popular on Facebook. It showed a toddler with a bright smile and full cheeks, while the caption held a sad story about how this girl recently passed away in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after receiving the polio vaccine. Afterwards, an authentic source clarified that the child actually died from choking on a peanut. But the damage had already been done, as the clarification likely reached a mere fraction of the people who saw the original post. This was clearly intended to add fuel to the fire that is the qualms of our sizeable anti-vax population, which is the reason why we are amongst the only three countries in the world where polio still exists.
To try to counter this problem, Whatsapp has set a limit on the maximum number of people you can forward a particular message to at a time. Facebook, on the other hand, has put a small “i” icon next to article titles that has extra information about the publisher, so users can evaluate its reliability for themselves. However, the former feature probably won’t have a large effect, and the latter is unlikely to be used frequently by the average user.
Instead, what we should be aiming for is widespread awareness of the permeability of fake news and better critical thinking skills to be able to judge whether a news item is authentic or not. It is easier than ever in today’s digital age for information to travel around the world in an instant, but it is just as easy to fact-check information on Google before sharing it with our friends, and contributing, drop by drop, to the pool of misinformation that may eventually culminate in disaster.
Say no to fake news.
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