Thursday, 21 March 2019 – In the age of social media, the way that information is produced and consumed has changed drastically. Unlike conventional forms of media, the internet creates a situation where anyone can produce and share content online. While this has led to freer forms of expression and communication, it comes at the cost of the quality and credibility of information.
In order to holistically understand the spread of misinformation, an important distinction must be made between “fake news” and the general phenomenon of misinformation. The former has become a politically loaded term signifying a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes, while the latter encompasses the unintentional spread of misinformation in the form of articles, pictures, and videos that have been manipulated or taken out of context.
The deliberate spread of fake news takes many forms. Often, these stories are created by businesses to increase advertising revenues with the intent of attracting a larger audience. It is also often politically motivated with the aim of influencing elections and public discourse. Fake news is also created to address personal grievances, such as the desire to harm someone’s reputation. Friends, strangers, businesses, political organisations, charities, and news websites are thus all complicit in the rise of the phenomenon.
Bots have the potential to increase the spread of fake news, as they use algorithms to decide what articles and information specific users like, without taking into account the authenticity of an article. Bots mass produce and spread articles and are capable of creating fake accounts and personalities on the web that gain followers, recognition, and authority. Almost 30% of the spam and content spread on the internet originates from these software bots.
The phenomenon is also exacerbated by untrained journalists who are not following professional journalistic standards or ethics (just copy-pasting information without checks or balances.) The way that people consume information is also changing, with social media becoming one of the most dominant platforms for information consumption. News travels quicker than ever before, and a trend has emerged where facts go viral less often than falsehoods.
How to avoid falling for fake news
Research has shown that an understanding of what fake news is and what it means can equip people to avoid falling prey to the growing epidemic. Teaching internet users how search engines work, where online links lead, what accountability and accuracy mean in the context of online news, and how to check whether a story is reliable using information from other sites is crucial to combatting the increasing prevalence of misinformation available online.
1) Check the source
Since anyone can produce and share content on social media, it is important to check the credibility of the source. Reputable news sources have editorial processes that are rigorous, as are their ethics guidelines. Since misinformation is often spread under the guise of credible sources, make sure to verify the author and URL of content online.
2) Verify the context
News can be recycled from previous years to influence opinions on current affairs. Checking the date is thus an important tool to check the credibility of an article.
3) Check if claims are supported
Reliable news claims should be backed up by experts or other reputable news sources. It is important to check the sources that an article has cited. Even if the article does cite sources, don’t think the link itself is sufficient evidence. Follow the link to make sure it says what the article claims it does.
4) Read beyond the headline
Fake news also often uses sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and internet click revenue. Avoid falling for clickbait – headlines designed to lure clicks and increase advertising revenue generated from this activity, regardless of the veracity of the published stories. These often sound absurd or unbelievable, such as news revealing a cure for a major illness or the prediction of a future disaster.
5) Check format & language
Pay attention to formatting, punctuation, and language of information found online. Spelling errors, entire phrases and sentences in uppercase, or awkward punctuation can be indicative of unreliable or deceptive journalism.
6) Verify images
Images can be manipulated, doctored or taken out of context – a reverse image search can authenticate a photograph.
7) Watch out for Satire
Many satirical sites today bear names that sound legitimate, and the line between what is real and what is being falsified or exaggerated is often too fine for most people to identify. If a story seems too abnormal to be true, check to see if the site has a satire disclaimer.
8) Ask the Experts
Ask an expert in the field, or consult a fact-checking website; do your own detective work and feel more confident in being able to identify fact vs. fiction.
9) Be Critical – Question Everything
Be skeptical and actively challenge your own biases and perception. Research shows that we selectively attend to and process information that we agree with more fluently than information we disagree with. This is also known as “confirmation or myside bias”. Does it take you less than two seconds to vehemently agree or disagree with an article or headline? Then it’s probably framed to increase polarization.
10) Venture beyond social media websites for your news
These are not fact-checked news sites. Social media websites allow businesses and political campaigners to target you with sponsored ads that look like real stories. Moreover, news feeds are tailored to your prior click behavior and engagement with content. This means that the platform selectively feeds users news stories, creating so-called “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles”. With no shortage of fake news bots, twitter is no source for accurate news either. Try to find reliable and accurate news outlets.
‘Can you trust news on social media?’ and ‘News on WhatsApp’: shareable infographics made by Bolo Bhi displayed in English, Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, and Sindhi respectively: