The virus of deliberate online falsehoods, popularly known as ‘fake news’, has been spreading rapidly thanks to the ‘hospitable environment’ provided by info-communications technology and the increasingly digital-oriented lifestyle people all over the world have adopted (think smartphones, Facebook, etc).
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Fake news refers to refers to news, stories or hoaxes created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers. DRUMS, or Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears, is another term used to capture this multi-faceted reality of our digitally connected society.
Fake News: A Primer
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While society had previously gotten its news from trusted sources such as media outlets and journalists, who are bound by strict codes of professional practice, the internet has made possible a whole new way to publish, share and consume information and news. And mostly with very little regulation or editorial standards.
When it comes to news from social media networks and other websites, it can be difficult to tell whether stories are factual or not. An overload of information and a general lack of understanding about how the chaotic digital information space works has contributed to an increase in the virality of fake news.
Fake news can fall into numerous categories. A common one that many have fallen prey to is clickbait – stories that are deliberately fabricated and have sensational headlines to gain more website visitors and increase advertising revenue for websites. Propaganda, a term from the pre-digital era, refers to stories that are created to deliberately mislead audiences, promote a biased point of view, or a partisan political agenda.
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Even journalists can be guilty to spreading fake news. Reporters or journalists may sometimes publish a story with unreliable information or without checking all of the facts which can mislead audiences. Citizen journalists fall under this category. Satire technically falls under fake news as well. Many websites and social media accounts such as The Onion and New Nation publish fake news stories for entertainment and parody.
Political Misinformation and Vicious Rumours
Fake news can have serious consequences for everything from political developments and social trends.
In the political sphere, the shrewd use of fake news as a political instrument was shown by a Russian misinformation campaign in Ukraine in 2015. Facebook was exploited as a tool to spread false information in order to foster distrust among the Ukrainian people towards their own government, and to build support for Russia’s eventual occupation of parts of Ukraine. So-called troll factories were used to create, post and re-post fake news on social media and other online platforms.
In Asia, the fake news virus has wreaked havoc in India, the world’s largest democracy, where the massive popularity of social messaging app WhatsApp has been linked to a string of violence. Indian authorities are struggling to combat a spate of murders linked to rumours circulating on WhatsApp, India’s most popular social media app with more than 200 million users. Between 2017 and 2018, it was reported that at least 30 people were killed after being accused of being child kidnappers based on false rumours circulated on WhatsApp.
Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers
Fake news has led to the formation of filter bubbles and echo chambers in society. Filter bubbles occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively present the information a user would want to see. Websites make such assumptions based on the information related to the user such as click behaviour, browsing history, search history and location. A filter bubble can thus cause people to be significantly less exposed to viewpoints that may contradict their own, causing them to become intellectually isolated. Earlier this year, no less than Google admitted to this being an issue on its search engine and said it is working on solutions that would offer varying points of views to its users.
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Related to filter bubbles is the formation of an echo chamber, which describes a hardening of that filter bubble into a chamber where people live with exposure only to their own opinions and those who “echo” the same ideas without disputing its veracity. This phenomenon is often attributed to “confirmation bias.” When we see new information, we try to decide whether or not to believe it. Generally, if the new information confirms the existing beliefs that we hold, we agree with it and often share it online (repost, retweet, etc.) But if the new information contradicts what we believe to be true, we are most likely to disagree with and dismiss it in order to maintain cognitive consistency.
Confirmation bias becomes more potent when we are confronted with complex problems and overloaded with information. Confirmation bias makes us vulnerable to false claims that confirm what is familiar but may be factually wrong. On a social level, this results in intense polarisation, where everyone lives in echo chambers that reverberate confirming information and mute everything else. Collectively, filter bubbles and echo chambers can contribute to fake news symptoms such as racism, sexism and bigotry.
Cure for the Virus?
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The cure for the fake news virus does not rest on any single cure. It requires a collective effort from different institutions and people. That said, governments have an integral role in curbing the spread of fake news.
A key ingredient in the “cure” has to be nurturing an informed public, as is the case in Singapore. This comprises a national framework to coordinate and guide public education initiatives to ensure that people are well-informed and able to discern truth from falsehood. Public education initiatives include media and digital literacy, along with critical thinking. Schools curriculums should also incorporate similar initiatives.
There is also a need to support quality journalism, which plays a vital role in nurturing an informed public. Good quality journalism helps prevent news sources that lack credibility from becoming agents that amplify fake news.
Government powers, through legislation, are necessary to implement the wide range of measures to combat fake news. This consists of increasing exposure to corrections to fake news; limiting exposure to falsehoods; and preventing falsehoods from being amplified by bots, trolls and digital advertising. Given the speed at which information flows, these measures should be able to take effect in a matter of hours.
Other than governments, technology companies such as Google and Facebook have a part to play in fighting this virus. To that end, they have introduced measures such as reporting and flagging tools that users can use to report fake news. However, it is uncertain how effective such measures will be as technology companies are for-profit private entities which do not answer to any single government.
Here to Stay
Ultimately, the problem of fake news is here to stay and it will take a multi-pronged effort by all stakeholders – government, businesses, institutions and the public right down to the individual – to fight this virus. And just like any virus which mutates, there is a need to be vigilant against the evolution of the fake news phenomenon and respond accordingly. There is no room to be ignorant about fake news given how heavily the world relies on information and digital technologies. And that is a fact.