Internet has made the world a global village. It was supposed to do that — it was supposed to amplify human potential. However, along with the positives, Internet has also made the negatives much larger than they used to be.
Spread of ‘rumours’ is an age-old phenomenon. However, in the hyper-connected world of ours, the spread of this rumour is at an unprecedented scale. “Fake News” has taken the world by storm and it’s producers and distributors have figured out a way to use internet’s biggest strength — interconnected and uncensored — against it.
What is Fake News? The adjective ‘Fake’ can mean a lot of things. Adopting a definitional framework set forth by numerous reports, I’ll call the phenomenon as “Information Disorder” and classify it in three categories -
a) Mis-information — Information which is factually incorrect and is spread without an intention to harm
b) Dis-information — Information which is factually incorrect and is spread with an intention to harm
c) Mal-information — Information which is factually correct, but is not supposed to be in public domain. It is made public with the intent to cause harm or serve a certain purpose.
The mis-, dis- and mal-information together would be called “information disorder”.
A “Fake” news story will go along these lines — create a story, post the story and distribute the story on the social network. The most insidious part of the process is the use of peer-to-peer sharing for spreading polluted information. It has been shown, time and again, that we are less likely to question something that is shared by a peer.
At the first glance, a Fake News site, will look exactly like a veritable source of news. To make matters worse, on your Twitter or Facebook feed, they will appear side-by-side, and only after careful inspection, you would find out that the link you clicked has directed you to a website which was formed a month ago.
Information pollution has both short-term and long-term ramifications. Short term effects can be stampede from hoaxes and mob violence. In 2018, there were countless cases of people being killed by the mob in India, after WhatsApp messages were forwarded, wrongly accusing people of crimes of child abductors and rapists. These mob-lynchings were on top of the prevalence of mob violence in the country against the minority. The rumours were designed to target the minority and the helpless.
The long-term ramifications would be change in voting trends. Brexit referendum is an outstanding example of how disinformation led the people of UK to take a disastrous decision. The use of Russian disinformation campaign to sway 2016 US Presidential Elections, and subsequent election of Trump as the President have after-shocks even to this date.
Factors that have fed into Information Disorder
Misinformation and disinformation are as old as human civilisation (also called “lying”). However, in the public domain the present menace of information disorder is due to convergent pressure from multiple factors.
Digitisation of Journalism
Digital Age has been rightly hailed as the ‘golden era of journalism’. There’s an unprecedented access to data caches, which has enabled ground-breaking investigative journalism. Cross-border collaborative reporting would not have been possible if it were not for the present state of digital advancement. The treasure troves of knowledge from diverse sources are available to anyone at the click of a button. However, it has also come with massive downsides.
The traditional business model of journalism, that supported it for almost two centuries has collapsed. The advertisers have moved away from newspapers to the digital platform. The digital advertisements on the news’ websites have not proved sustainable, which has led to massive layoffs, reduced distribution of printed newspaper and increasingly pressing deadlines.
The audience wants the news “Now”, which means there is much less editorial oversight. The news cycle is accelerated and to top that off, the barriers for publication have been removed. Anybody with an Internet connection (for example — me), can publish an article and circulate it among his peers (and then the peers can circulate it to their social network). Increasingly, we see politicians using social media to publish emotionally charged messages, and with little regard to facts. All these have led to the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation.
The digital-first and social-first nature of the present journalism means that more and more news is produced in less and less time. If there’s any misinformation, it gets amplified and goes viral. Even though fact-checkers debunk these, there’s no way to undo the massive reach of social media.
These factors have weakened the traditional journalism and have led to erosion of trust in the bulwarks of information, and fed into the information disorder. One of the key objectives of agents producing polluted information, is to erode the trust in credible sources.
Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers
Communication is not only the transmission of information. It is a ritual — a ritual which is a representation of the shared belief of a community or a country about issues of the public. When you sit down, in your living room, and talk about Narendra Modi’s policies, you are not just reporting them, but you’re also presenting them to your friends, who would most likely have a shared view on the said-policies.
Facebook and Twitter make money from advertisements. And for you to see the advertisements, their algorithms are designed for maximum engagement. When we are sharing a certain news piece on the social media, among our peers, it is highly unlikely that there would be resistance. On the contrary, you’d get ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’. If by any chance, what you have shared is disinformation, you will end of propagating it, without protest. You will stay engaged on Facebook and Twitter, because they are HUGE echo chambers for your beliefs — whatever you believe in, will be echoed to you, and amplified in the process.
Filter bubbles are even bigger problems. To increase engagement, algorithms that Google, Facebook and Twitter use to curate our feeds are designed to show us what we like and what we agree with. The feeds are very ‘us’. What you see on your Facebook newsfeed is NOT what the real world is like, because Facebook has tailored the newsfeed for maximum engagement. For example, if you are on one side of Rafale deal, you will see articles which conform to your stand. Any disinformation that is related to that particular issue will be amplified by you. And you won’t even know it, because you are in your bubble.
Lack or Absence of Media Literacy
While browsing the Internet, there is a marked difference between somebody who has recently been introduced to the internet and somebody who has been using it for a while.
A new user reads a piece of news vertically, while an experienced user reads the news horizontally.
The moment they get a news, which is ‘breaking’ and makes an outrageous claim, an inexperienced user will read the article, look for logos and sources in the page itself. However, an experienced internet user, will immediately open up another tab and search for another source of the news or cross-check whatever the news article claims. This sort of ‘horizontal browsing’ is one aspect of media literacy.
Because of the constant bombarding of information, as netizens we have to be literate about Media and Information. That covers literacy in human rights (i.e. we should know that everybody has the right to freedom of expression); in news (i.e. about the journalistic standards and ethics); understanding of the “attention economy”; intercultural literacy; privacy literacy etc.
This Media and Information Literacy (identified as MIL by UNESCO), has become an essential life-skill. It should inform our consumption, production, discovery and sharing of information. Only when more of us would understand this information society, can we combat the information disorder.
What Can be Done to Mitigate this Information Disorder?
The pollution of the information stream is at monstrous scales and to reduce it to a safe level will require steps to be taken by technology companies, governments and us.
What can Tech Companies (Google, Facebook and Twitter) do?
Algorithmic Solutions would be the first line of defence. Identifying disinformation through Natural Language Processing can be effective, but a lot of disinformation is spread in the form of pictures (memes). While algorithmic solution is a step forward, it cannot sufficiently mitigate the problem of information disorder.
Tech Companies should identify sites which frequently publish disinformation, and should financially punish them by not allowing revenue from ad sells. There should be transparency regarding the advertisers, so that the origin of an ad can be found by the public.
Tech companies could introduce nudges into their products and services, in the form of warnings or pop-ups before somebody is sharing a post to multiple users. Curtailing the ability of the users to quickly forward messages, labelling messages that have been forwarded are some of the steps that have already taken by some tech companies. Other companies should follow these trends, as these ‘nudges’ have been found to work against the rapid spread of disinformation.
Blacklisting sites and credibility scores are a dubious steps, because it will repose the authority to declare ‘truths’ in sites on Tech Companies. Giving a credibility score, requires a broad judgement and designing algorithms which conform to such broad definitions is a difficult feat. If these giant tech companies are able to create some functionalities where information can be shared with a “Disputed” label, it will be an impactful dissipator of Fake News.
It’s difficult to envision that the tech companies will be the forerunners in curbing this information disorder.
What can Governments Do?
The National Governments can incorporate steps to curb information disorder into national policy (like Germany’s Law against Hate Speech). National Governments should demand transparency on who is buying which ads. National Governments should enforce minimum levels of public service news on the social media platforms.
The national governments should train the cybersecurity personnel to deal with information disorder, and should stay vigilant during critical times such as natural disasters, terror attacks and elections.
What can the Mainstream Media organisations do?
The Media Organisations, which operate on the social media platforms, should exercise a stronger ethical standards. They should exercise strategic silence and have high standards of fact-checking before breaking a news.
The Media should produce news literacy segments and should warn the public about the ghastly effects of Information Disorder, by covering stories about the impacts of information disorder.
What can we do?
We are the most important cog in this vicious machinery of information disorder. Information Disorder originates from a place of political interest and as the civil society we can exercise our enormous power over political shaping of information.
We should be more discerning about the things that we read. We should understand that the information which we get from ANY source, will have some sort of bias. No news channel is neutral — the same event will be covered in completely different lights by two different news outlets.
Understanding that there is a subjective “looking glass” for every event, will take us a long way in curbing disinformation. All disinformation campaigns formulate fabricated news in an emotionally enraging language.
Whenever you encounter an emotionally charged piece of “news” step back and find a calmer and dispassionate view on the said-event.
Do not share a news without confirming its contents. In fact, refrain from sharing news, because all you end up doing is shouting inside your digital echo chamber. If you are absolutely sure about a ‘sensational news’, then and only then, share it.
Be circumspect when it comes to statistics. Quantitative Statistics has been used for decades to deceive people. However, with attractive visualization, it’s easier than ever to make bogus data look genuine. If there is an infographic which is about a critical decision i.e. about Climate Change, about Vaccination etc, cross-check the data shown.
We have to accept that we live in an era of information disorder (mis-, dis- and mal- information) of unprecedented scale.
Social Media Platforms have given us our personal echo chambers and have created highly immersive digital filter bubbles for us. We need to accept that whether it’s Facebook newsfeed or the Google News, our “feed” is highly personalised and we routinely are made to see the world from a point of view to are already biased.
We cannot afford to amplify out biases.
Passion and Information should be from different sources. We should take everything we read or hear from “passionate” reporters and news sites, with a large pinch of salt. Although, as the average Joe we neither have the time nor resources to deal with a topic from the original sources, but we can stop ourselves from being taking long lasting decisions (e.g voting in an election or in a referendum) based on ‘passionately’ reported news.
Information disorder already has made long-lasting impacts on our society — People have been killed (mob-lynchings), disastrous economic decisions have been taken (Brexit), pompous leaders (Trump) have been elected (and may also get elected in the future), children have been made to suffer from extinct diseases (measles has made a comeback), policies to protect the environment have been undone.
And this pollution will continue to have adverse effects unless we (tech companies, national governments and the civil society) take steps to curb it, and negate the convergent factors that have fed into this Disorder.