This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Ishita Mehal. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

How Did Social Media Go From Harmless Good Morning Messages To Fake News?

There’s this quote usually attributed to actor Amitabh Bachchan, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But the funny thing about it, there’s reason to doubt he ever said this at all, thus, ironically, proving the quote.

Today, no matter who said it, it is truer than ever before. The speed with which information spreads has created the ideal conditions for the phenomenon of fake news to thrive. It refers to false or highly distorted information that is intended to manipulate and mislead us.

fake news woman on whatsapp
Representational image.

Only a few decades ago, the news was broad-based. Our choices were limited to a couple of newspapers and TV networks. Now, the quantity of news just a click away is limitless, but the time or energy we have to absorb and evaluate it is not.

Recent advances in communication technology have had immeasurable benefits in breaking down the barriers between information and people. The internet has multiplied the amount of information and viewpoints, with social media, blogs and online videos turning every citizen into a potential reporter.

But if everyone is a reporter, nobody is, and different sources may disagree not only on opinions but on the facts themselves.

Moreover, our desire for quick information overpowers the need to be certain of its validity. And when this desire to forward messages without verifying it is multiplied by billions of people worldwide nearly instantaneously, it has devastating consequences, sometimes even life-threatening.

In India, we’ve been grappling with terrible incidents of WhatsApp killings. It seems unrealistic, but over 30 people were killed by rampaging mobs not because they committed a crime but solely on suspicion of being child kidnappers over rumours spread on WhatsApp. India must be the only country where social media rumours have led to such brutal murders.

Remember when WhatsApp used to be clogged with innumerable sweet good morning quotes? How did we go from those harmless good morning messages to a hub of misinformation and fake news?

If we were to believe all the news sent on WhatsApp, then we have already found a cure for cancer, NASA captured India’s image from space to know how it looks during Diwali and COVID is cured by inhaling steam at 75°C. These headlines went viral across social media platforms, with the latter causing burn injuries.

We have been flooded with misinformation. A 2018 BBC study claims that nearly 72% of Indians have difficulty distinguishing real information from made-up ones.

Why Do We Fall For Fake News?

Indian newspapers
Representational Image. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to human psychology, one major theory propounded worldwide is that of confirmation or cognitive bias as the root of the problem—the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs, truth be damned.

This fascinating and equally dangerous aspect psychology highlights is that the only thing behind the devastating outcomes of fake news is nothing but our own minds playing clever tricks on us.

We believe in a certain religious or political ideology. So when we get information that aligns with that, we have this extra urge to forward it to people who again believe in that ideology. We don’t step back and question ourselves about the veracity of the information.

Experiments show that even when people encounter balanced information containing views from differing perspectives, they tend to find supporting evidence for what they already believe.

When it comes to falling for deceptive headlines, the problem lies in the lack of reasoning and thinking critically to uncover the truth. Many educated people feel that only the uneducated fall for fake news, but studies show that those with higher education are just as likely to fall for it as others, especially if it confirms their worldview.

There are more people reading news on the internet every day and there’s a downside to it. Social media platforms provide personalised recommendations based on the vast amounts of data they have about our past preferences. They prioritise news in our feeds that we are most likely to agree with—no matter how fringe—and shield us from information that might change our minds.

This creates a false reality that not just one or two people buy into, but thousands.

If continued to be perpetrated, these lies can turn deadly and threaten societal stability by creating a highly polarised society. Moreover, it affects our electoral choices because we rely on accurate information to make good choices about public policy, healthcare, the economy and other issues.

Apart from spreading fake news, misinformation campaigns divert attention from serious problems.

Where Does This False Information Come From?

john oliver on arnab
Representational image.

Fake news can be misheard or misquoted from a real news piece, made up to make money or views for a news outlet, designed to promote a person or a party for political gain or be misunderstood from a joke or satirical post and taken as a fact.

Political parties use it to sow seeds of distrust and prejudice ahead of elections, as we are seeing today. Even memes and jokes that appear funny and innocuous might carry misinformation to implant a certain idea unconsciously in your mind to fulfil an agenda.

News outlets do it to garner TRPs as for them news is business. In a rush to encourage views, many outlets resort to misleading headlines, play up dramatic conflicts in the name of debates and focus on big personalities to draw an audience rather than providing contextual details or data on issues that matter.

When something sensational happens, every media outlet wants to put it out as soon as possible to attract more people to their websites so that they click on the ads that generate revenue.

The 24-hour news cycle has led to an increase in competition but also decreased time for fact-checking. Instead of news being the product, our attention has become the product in the form of clicks and views. This is called the “attention economy”.

There is an entire industry out there that puts forward bigoted, abhorrent, and hatred filled narratives that are completely fake to touch our emotional cards so that we don’t think logically before forwarding. Unfortunately, negative content spreads faster than positive. Hence, it is easy to manipulate emotions by creating narratives that trigger responses such as hatred, disgust, fear and anxiety.

And even if it isn’t something we would normally believe, the surprising and shocking nature of the content plays on our emotions and gets us to share it. We all trust our families and friends, so when they send something on to us that might contain false information, we’re more likely to believe them and then, in turn, share it with others that we trust too.

Imagine a web of contacts slowly getting larger as fake news is passed between different trusted networks; that’s how it spreads. As Johnathan Swift said, ‘Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.’

While fake news presents a general crisis for our democracy, the online spread of disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it also presents threats to public health. Soon before the first cases were recorded in the country, top social media platforms were rife with misinformation about the origin of the virus, how it spreads, and ways to cure the disease by simply consuming garlic and onions.

This massive surge of fake news undermines people’s access to legitimate and fact-checked sources of information.

So Then, Which News Outlet Should We Trust?

zee news andolanjivi
Representational image.

The media’s job is to give a voice to the voiceless and oppressed. It is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It should offer you an insight that challenges your existing beliefs.

While good journalism aims for objectivity, media bias is often unavoidable. According to a study published in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – There are two ways to tell that powerful interests might be trying to manipulate our opinion:

  1. When the media seems to be trying to give opinions rather than reporting facts.
  2. When all of them are reporting the same stories, promulgating the same narratives, relying on the same sources by using the same phrases—an organised campaign.

Is there any way to keep good journalism alive? Yes, by paying to keep news free of advertisers. We must encourage and support independent subscription-driven digital news media devoted to research, fact-checking and in-depth investigation of issues that matter.

How Do We Combat Fake News On Social Media Though?

In this day and age, we’re all publishers and we have a responsibility. We are the ones who share news stories online and can each help safeguard our democracy by improving the accuracy of how we read and what we share online.

Primarily, analyse the headline. Was it written to elicit an emotional reaction such as hatred or anger? Think about the real-life ramifications of the information we share and its potential to incite violence. While some headlines can be both shocking and true, a juicy headline may often mean that the article is most likely not concerned with the truth.

Before you share that unbelievable or outrageous news item, do a web search to find any additional information or context you might have missed. If you aren’t completely sure that the hot scoop you want to serve is accurate, then don’t share it.

According to a 2016 Columbia University study, 6 out of 10 news articles were not even read beyond the headlines by the user prior to sharing it on social media.

Read the entire story, not just the headline. Look at the website that originally posted the story. Is it from a reputable news organisation or reporter? Is the story believable and logical? Is it straightforward news or an editorial or opinion piece trying to persuade you? Could it be a satire or hoax?

And be careful because many propaganda outlets use names and designs suspiciously similar to reputed news outlets.

fake news
Representational image.

Choose facts over opinions. In most situations, different news organisations will report the same basic facts. If you can’t corroborate these facts across several reputable outlets, there’s a good chance the story is fake or misleading. You can also use reliable fact-checking websites.

Watch out for anonymous reports that rely on “unknown sources”. These could be people who have little connection to the story or have an interest in influencing coverage, their anonymity making them unaccountable for the information they provide.

Old news is often re-posted on social media to get more clicks and advertising money. Check the date and make sure the information is current, accurate and relevant.

Check your personal biases that can cause you to avoid scepticism. As mentioned before, we tend to be the least sceptical of stories that reinforce our existing values and beliefs. Therefore, when you read or watch a news story, consider whether your pre-conceived notions are causing you to think or feel a particular way about the story.

Relying upon a few like-minded news sources limits the range of material available to people and increases the odds of falling victim to hoaxes or rumours. Therefore, follow a diverse group of people and views. Read coverage in multiple outlets which employ different reporters and interview different experts.

Be curious about opposing views and listen to what others have to say and why. This helps us see issues and beliefs from another perspective, though we still need to be very conscious of wading past our confirmation bias.

Today, we are freer than ever from the old media gatekeepers who used to control the flow of information. But with freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that this flow does not become a flood, leaving us less informed than before we took the plunge.

Nearly every theory of human decision making, cooperation and coordination have some sense of the truth at its core. But with the rise of fake news, we are teetering on the brink of the end of reality, where we cannot tell what is real and what is fake and that’s incredibly dangerous.

We have to be vigilant in defending the truth against misinformation with our technologies, policies and, most importantly, with our individual responsibilities, decisions, behaviours and actions.

Created by Ishita Mehal

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