News is supposed to be fact. It’s meant to be recently discovered, factual information. So then, isn’t the very existence of fake news a strange paradox? And it doesn’t merely exist; it’s omnipresent, spreading through the world like an epidemic.
And this is no exaggeration. Fake news can be just as deadly and infectious as a widespread disease. For instance, earlier this year in May, a WhatsApp message spread through Jharkhand, warning people about kidnappers and advising them to inform local authorities if they saw any strangers around, as they could be members of this apparent kidnapping gang. Many villagers readily believed what they’d seen on their phones, and went about lynching strangers. Seven innocent people died.
This incident reveals how very dangerous fake news is, as well as how today social media works like steroids for it. The concept of fake news has always existed, hasn’t it? But in the past, it was limited to whispered rumours and gossip. However, now with WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, it has platforms on which to flourish. The disinformation can spread like wildfire. At the click of a button, it flows from cell phone to laptop to tablet to computer.
We believe what we see
And we believe it. When we see it typed up, complete with Photoshopped images, it automatically gains some degree of credibility in our eyes that can make us believe it and even continue to spread it. The results of this are often bad, if not catastrophic like in the case of the Jharkhand lynching. It could persuade us to consume something that actually deteriorates our health, purchase faulty goods, or vote for a corrupt politician. Sometimes it’s merely an annoyance, like during cyclone Okhi in India.Messages on Facebook and WhatsApp came flooding in, claiming that various roads and highways were blocked, when they were actually perfectly accessible.
The negativity of these kinds of messages also makes us believe them quickly. This might quite possibly be due to our brains’ negative bias. We’re wired to be more sensitive to unpleasant news, so that we’re able to notice danger more easily, and thus escape it. This means that if we hear that the new 2000 notes have GPS chips embedded in them, we tend to believe it. This means that if we receive the appalling news that Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke is a member of the Klu Klux Klan, we tend to believe it. This means that if we get sent a chain message on WhatsApp claiming that batches of Pepsi have been contaminated with cancer-causing human blood, we tend to believe it. And so we thoughtlessly share this news, and let it circulate and reach millions. We don’t pause to think and realise that this piece of news has not cited any sources, or really given any indication of being accurate. When we are in real danger, this sort of impulsive reaction is meant to benefit us. If we find ourselves staring in the face of a starving, bloodthirsty lion, leaping into action could save our life. But in the case of being sent a ridiculous defamation of something or someone, leaping into action and forwarding it without a thought, is really not the best idea.
Since it’s known that we respond to negative news in this manner, it’s pretty clear why these chain messages are created. In the case of the cancer causing Pepsi message, it could have been cooked up by a rival soda company or someone else trying to drag down Pepsi sales. In politics, fake news is fabricated to destroy a political candidate or beef up the reputation of another.
And so President Donald Trump has latched on to fake news as his method to dismiss any reporting that he does not care for. People are aware of the existence of fake news, aware that it circulates quickly and constantly. So it’s quite convenient and easy to claim that a piece of news isfake. Thus in more than a hundred of his tweets so far, the President of the United States has referred to fake news and attempted to insult numerous media outlets. And he is not the only politician to use this epidemic to reduce the credibility of any article, etc., that portrays him in a negative light. Observers have accused the military in Myanmar of attempting to conduct a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims, but a security official told The New York Times that it was fake news.
And this month, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, dismissed important reporting on the increasingly authoritarian Beijing as fake news.
Combating this trend
Fake news needs to be combated on a war footing. Not only will this prevent any other horrific incidents like the one in Jharkhand, but it will also rid politicians of their new favourite method of undercutting accurate, unbiased media coverage. Not to mention, it would mean no more painful WhatsApp forwards. And honestly, isn’t that reason enough?
Luckily it isn’t too difficult to find out if what you’re reading is fake news or not. If an article or message seems to be a bit too outlandish, check its sources. If they’re unreliable or nonexistent, the story could well be fake. And check its author, see if she or he is reputable, or even real. Finally, check how old the story is. Sometimes websites try to make dated, controversial news masquerade as current in an effort to get clicks. If you manage to discover that a piece of news is fake, bury it. Don’t let it circulate. Otherwise the world will remain a place where people are thoroughly convinced that Kim Jong Un was voted Sexiest Man Alive!