Fake News: The danger is real

There is a need for a mechanism to check the spread of fake news check which could be a “threat to democracy,” Nagaland Governor Nagaland Governor, PB Acharya stressed on occasion of the National Press Day on November 16.


He is right. Today, technology is enabling everyone not only to generate stories but also influencing the way they are read and circulated. Concurrently, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp etc are substituting the mainstream media as a powerful tool to disseminate news. However, it is a double-edged sword.


While issues of copyright and authenticity are some primary concerns, the immediate casualty is the proliferation of ‘fake news,’ crowned as 2017’s ‘word of the year’ by the Collins dictionary and described as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”


“Disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but the online environment has enabled it to increase dramatically in terms of quantity, reach and speed of transmission,” stated a report submitted to the United Kingdom Parliament in October.


Increasingly such news is holding precedence over facts and informed opinion; generating tensions between nations or communities while regulations are being implemented in many countries to silence dissent in the guise of curbing the fake news. A BBC research released last week also revealed that fake news is fast spreading in India owing to a “rising tide of nationalism.”


Why do people fall into the trap of circulating false stories? Perhaps because eye-popping headlines make it easier for people to share content than evaluate or even read it. Or the mad rush to ‘be the first to share’ breaking news to friends and associates, postulated a Harvard University Advisory on tips for spotting ‘Fake News Story’.


The Guardians’ Claire Wardle noted that it is often created with four distinct motivations: political, financial, psychological (for personal satisfaction) and social (to reinforce belonging to communities or “tribes”).


Such news, however, is gradually becoming a deadly problem. Between January 1, 2017, and July 5, 2018, 33 persons (24 in this year till July) have been killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported cases of child-lifting rumours, reported IndiaSpend, a data-based news portal in July. Prior to 2017, only one case was recorded.


Closer home in Nagaland, apart from the child-lifting rumours, which abruptly stopped after the tragic incident in Assam in June, viral messages are often circulated on different occasions. The messages asking people to drink more water between May 22-May 28 during an ‘Equinox,’ or the alerts claiming the Measles and Rubella vaccine to be “unsafe” in the run-up to the launch of its official launch on October 3 are symptomatic of such phenomenon. Apart from fines and FIRs, apologies are regularly published on local dallies for circulating or posting unverified news on social media.


While the Central Home Ministry on July 5 directed states and union territories to contain mob-lynching fuelled by rumours after the Assam incident, the Union IT Ministry also warned the popular Facebook-owned WhatsApp of legal action if it remained a “mute spectator” and tackle the problem at the earliest. WhatsApp on July 10 also published full advertisements in leading Indian newspapers in its first such effort to combat a flurry of fake messages. Besides awareness campaigns, a series of unprecedented interventions to curb sharing on the app including labelling whether it was a just a ‘forward,’ rather than one created by the sender was implemented. On November 12, the Union Home Ministry also warned Twitter that failure to check hate messages would invite strict action.


With the matters going into legal realms, it is always prudent to double check any items shared on any social media platforms. Devoid of this, the smartphones and digital devices, which act as an extension of one’s hands, eyes, ears and brains, can also literally ‘handcuff’.


Paramount to tackling the issue of fake news is individual’s duty of being socially and morally responsible citizen. People should learn to use the technologies available to them more carefully or be ready for another list of ‘fake news risking life’ cases.


For the mainstream news organisations, it should start not by simply ignoring the ‘fake news,’ but proactively busting the myth and generating an informed opinion based on objectivity and serving as a credible and verified source of news. Ditto for government agencies. Instead of resorting to more regulation, the primary objective should be to combat misinformation through accessibility, transparency and constant interaction.


Most importantly, to appropriate Alexander Pope, “To share ‘news’ is human; to share it after verification, superhuman.”